As the Frenchman tells Cyclingnews in Japan at the Saitama Criterium, "I’ve never been this motivated in October."
Bardet has managed to bounce back quickly, but it still took him "two or three weeks" to digest July’s disappointment before starting to pick up the pieces.
The 28-year-old was a shadow of the rider who finished on the Tour de France podium in 2016 and 2017; his lacklustre displays the extension of a lacklustre season. He stood on the podium in Paris as the winner of the mountains classification but those polka-dots – perhaps fortuitous given the cancellation of the Tignes summit finish – did little to numb the pain of his implosion on the Col du Tourmalet, and little to distract from the sense he’d reached a significant juncture in his career.
"It was something I’d never experienced before, a season so difficult, so far below my expectations. Up to that point, my progression had been more or less linear, with each year a bit better than the last," Bardet says.
"In particular, I’d always been spoiled by the Tour de France up to that point, so having a bad Tour, and not enjoying it, was difficult to take."
Bardet took the surprising decision to call an early end to his season – a rarity in a world where squads are stretched and rankings points increasingly important. Some questioned his place in the sport as a whole, but Bardet insists that his introspection never reached those depths.
"I felt tired and disappointed, but the morale was not so low. I love the sport deeply, and I never lost faith in my ability to succeed," he explains.
"It was more the case that I didn’t want to race to make up the numbers. If I go to a race, it’s to be competitive. Certain riders who did the Tour, they may not have ended their seasons, but they’ve gone around finishing 50th at races. I don’t want to do that. For me it was logical to say ‘stop’ and, instead of dragging myself around more races, take some time to revitalise."
That process, it seems, is already complete.
"I feel fresh, ready to attack next season. I can’t wait to travel to Australia for the first race [Tour Down Under]," he says. "It’s a luxury to have a real break; normally I only have three or four weeks off, but this was almost two months away from the bike.
"I started riding again at the start of October, so that has given me a lot of time to get working. I’m doing some riding on the track, and I’m going to do some cyclo-cross in November. I’ve always loved cyclo-cross, and have done a bit at a low level, but it will hopefully help me rediscover my ‘punch’, because that was what was really lacking this year. I wasn’t that far below par, but I was unable to accelerate, and you can’t win races that way. I need to find a way to get that punch back."
As well as track and cyclo-cross, Bardet has been out on his mountain bike and in his trail shoes, and the winter will bring a customary return to the cross-country skis. Variety has become central.
"I learned a lot this year – a lot," he says, reiterating the point.
"The main conclusion I’ve drawn is that, to keep progressing in cycling, you must know how to reinvent yourself. Doing exactly the same thing year after year, pushing things further, doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement."
2020 goals and ambitions
Those comments from Bardet will heighten the intrigue surrounding his plans for 2020. He has voiced his desire to make his debut at the Giro d’Italia for a number of years now, but has found himself in something of a Tour de France straightjacket, being the French star of a French team.
Bardet’s and AG2R-La Mondiale’s race schedule for 2020 is yet to be drawn up but there’s a sense that this year’s Tour de France was the nadir that will finally trigger the trip to Italy.
"It’s a real possibility," he says. "I’m keen to see what I can do in a Grand Tour that’s not the Tour de France."
However, the routes for the two Grand Tours, unveiled this week and last, hardly make the decision a straightforward one. The Tour has gone for a gluttonous helping of climbing, with opportunities spread throughout the three weeks in what should, in theory, suit an attacking and instinctive rider like Bardet. What’s more, when it comes to time trialing, Bardet’s big Achilles heel, the Tour has just one, totaling 36km and finishing atop a mountain, while the Giro has three time trials, amounting to 58.8km against the clock.
Nevertheless, Bardet is refusing to be put off by the time against the clock.
"There are certainly a lot of time trial kilometres but for me that’s not a problem. There were a lot this year, and Carapaz, who’s not a time trial guy, won. The fact is the Giro is still much more open than the Tour," he argues.
Nor is he being sucked in by the Tour’s advances.
"It’s three or four years now that I’ve been hearing ‘this year is a Tour de France route for you’. It doesn’t always work like that," he says.
Besides, the primary Grand Tour is far from the only building block on which Bardet’s 2020 campaign will be built. Indeed, when he talks about his objectives, the two that he immediately mentions are not three-week races but one-day races - an area where he has arguably performed best in the past couple of years.
The Olympic Games road race in Tokyo on July 25, six days after the Tour de France reaches Paris, takes place on a climber's course, which Bardet previewed on Friday, while the World Championships in Switzerland in late September feature a similarly hilly parcours.
"Personally, I want to perform at the Olympic Games and the World Championships. I’m lucky to have those routes this year, and you know my passion for one-day races, so they’re a big motivation for me," Bardet says.
"I’m still very motivated by the Grand Tours, and I want to ride two of them next year, as well. It’s much more difficult to prepare for a Grand Tour than a Classic, but I think with a balanced calendar I can be good on both fronts."
As Bardet acknowledges, it’s going to be a hell of a season, whichever two Grand Tours he chooses. It’s unlikely he’d skip the Tour, so it’s either Giro-Tour-Olympics followed by a break ahead of Worlds, or it’s a Tour-Olympics-Vuelta-Worlds.
"The 2020 season is rich and dense. That’s also a benefit of ending my season early; I already feel much fresher, and that will enable me to do a really big 2020," he says.
And so, surrounded by riders who are only just launching themselves into the excesses of the off-season, Bardet is raring to go again. January 2020 cannot come soon enough and July 2019 seems a lifetime ago.
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