Ahead of the crucial Critérium du Dauphiné time trial on Wednesday, AG2R La Mondiale's Romain Bardet finds himself in a difficult situation following his stage 2 time losses to Chris Froome (Team Ineos), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and several of the other favourites. It's not over by a long shot, but AG2R have made no secret that this race is one of their objectives of the season, so the question is, has the likeable Frenchman blown his chance of being on the podium come Sunday night?
Not quite, according to team principal Vincent Lavenu.
"It's the race of truth on stage 4. We'll see what happens with Romain. We know it's not his strong point, but his time trial at Paris-Nice was encouraging," he told me at the start of stage 3.
"We'll have to wait to see the result, but for sure there'll be a battle between Froome and the time trial specialists. We've worked with Romain to improve his performances, on his position on the bike, and so we've tried to make sure everything is in place for him. I can't say precisely how much time he'll lose tomorrow, but if it's less than a minute, then it's good. If it's two minutes, then it's less good. We'll see."
One thing that could help save Bardet's race is the weather. Everyone's suffering in the cold, wet conditions. However, he's one of those rare climbers that doesn't fall apart when it's miserable, so the reason for his absence from the group of favourites wasn't caused by that. Quite the contrary, in fact, as his manager explained.
"The time loss wasn't good news, but he made a mistake in how to dose his effort yesterday, and, although disappointed, he's annoyed with himself, too," said Lavenu. "He was actually feeling good, but he got carried away and overestimated himself. He thought that by riding hard at the base of the last climb he would drop everyone. He didn't and then when he was trying to recover from that, he got countered and couldn't quite close the gap to the others at the top.
"It was a small mistake at the wrong time," he continued. "The 13-man group that went away in the middle of the stage changed everything, so it was a crazy day and he let himself be influenced by that. It was a very strong breakaway with riders who wouldn't normally do that kind of thing, so an extraordinary situation. In the end, it all came down to the strongest, and he showed his hand too early. At this level, you have to sometimes stay calm and know when to go, but he got too excited, too emotional, and that was his problem."
The mountains are still to come, but even with a deficit of only a minute and a half, which would be a best case scenario for Bardet after the time trial, things are looking complicated. Ineos have what seems to be the strongest team and are all in for Chris Froome, Pinot showed he was in great shape and then there's Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and EF Education First's Michael Woods to add to the mix.
It'll need something special from Romain Bardet to change the outcome of the race, and he may well find himself in a situation where he'll be allowed a bit more leeway later in the race, which, given AG2R's attacking style, could well be a blessing in disguise.
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