The climb of the Côte de la Croix Neuve above Mende has not been kind to Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) at the Tour de France. Three years ago, he frittered away the chance of stage victory after engaging in a game of cat and mouse with rival Thibaut Pinot that allowed Steve Cummings to swoop past and sweep away the spoils on a day when French president François Hollande was in attendance.
On Saturday, Bardet was the most eagerly anticipated guest on the so-called Montée Laurent Jalabert, at least as far as the locals were concerned. A native of Brioude, just 90 minutes up the A75, Bardet did not want for support from the roadside, but his afternoon ended in disappointment as he conceded 14 seconds to yellow jersey Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) in the closing kilometres.
In 2015, Bardet’s shortcomings were entirely tactical, but on this occasion, his setback was a consequence of sheer fatigue. His AG2R La Mondiale teammate Pierre Latour was an early pace-setter on the climb, raising expectations of a Bardet attack, but the Frenchman was on the back foot as soon as Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) accelerated on the climb and the yellow jersey fragmented.
By the time he reached the plateau atop the climb, Bardet was already deep into damage limitation mode. His exhaustion was palpable at the finish, where he was guided to the back of a team van to compose himself while a critical mass of television cameras and microphones built up outside. The scrum heaved forwards when Bardet re-emerged. He paused briefly, out of politeness rather than any real desire to talk about his day.
“It was a bit of a waiting race through the day, and then we went up the final climb flat out, and voilà,” Bardet said with a tired smile.
The first instalment of the Tour’s weekend doubleheader in the Massif Central was animated by a 31-rider break, while the peloton ambled more than ten miles behind the escapees for much of the afternoon, eventually coming in 18 minutes behind stage winner Omar Fraile (Astana). The shift in pace in the finale, however, was merciless, and Bardet was not alone in his suffering. He finished with Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and just behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
“Yes, I didn’t have a good day, but I went as hard as I could. It’s another day gone by. Bring on the Pyrenees,” Bardet said.
In the overall standings, Bardet remains 5th overall, but he is now 3:21 behind Thomas, and 1:31 off the podium. He also lost 22 seconds to Roglic, the man directly ahead of him on the general classification.
Sunday’s stage sees the peloton tackle the Pic de Nore before the long drop to the finish in Carcassonne, before the Pyrenees home into view after Monday’s rest day. There is still plenty of distance left to run in this Tour, and a television reporter looked desperately for an upbeat soundbite as Bardet prepared to take his leave: “You’re looking forward to the Pyrenees?”
“Yes, of course, even though I was very tired today,” Bardet said. “It was brutal again today.”
AG2R La Mondiale have just five riders left on this Tour, but Bardet’s companion Pierre Latour impressed with his show of force early on the final climb and retains the white jersey of best young rider, 2:27 ahead of Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Group Gobert).
“The stage was very fast at the start but there was nobody dangerous in it so they were able to go away,” Latour said. “Afterwards, it was all played out on the final climb, where we were well placed. We pushed at the bottom of the climb, first Mathias Frank and then me. On the last part, Roman lost a bit of time, but we’re still confident. There are several days left to try something, and in the Pyrenees, we could create some opportunities.”