Romain Bardet finds himself at something of a cross-roads in his career, as he decides whether to leave the only team he's ridden for as a professional at the end of 2020.
Since joining AG2R La Mondiale in 2012, the Frenchman became one of the best climbers in the world, twice finishing on the podium at the Tour de France, but the past two years have been more subdued, with 2019 a particular disappointment.
As Bardet, who'd planned to miss the Tour de France and target the Giro d'Italia until the coronavirus pandemic hit, figures out how to reinvent himself, he looks back at his career so far and picks out the five races that mean the most to him.
Amstel Gold Race 2012
The first race on my list is going to be Amstel Gold Race. That may come as a surprise to some readers but it was a pivotal race in my career when I was starting out.
I turned professional in 2012 with AG2R La Mondiale, and during the first few months of the season the team allowed me to find my feet with a handful of shorter races. I only raced over 200km once or twice in my first few months but Amstel was a different scenario entirely.
The Dutch Classics stands at nearly 260km in length and while an extra 50-60km might not seem like a lot, it certainly has an effect on your legs. It’s the sort of distance that separates the great riders from the absolute elite and until you’ve actually raced that far and survived you’re never quite sure where you stand and if you have the endurance or the quality to truly make it.
I remember being really afraid of what was to come and the night before I ate more pasta than you can even imagine. What made it worse was the fact that my roommate, Julien Bernard was even more nervous than I was. He’d been a pro for three or four years and I remember thinking, 'if he’s nervous, then this is going to be really bad'. I couldn’t relax and I slept poorly but in the morning I managed to channel my nerves and concentrate.
During the race I managed to infiltrate the main break and we were caught inside the last hour of racing. I was missing some strength in the last hour of racing in order to make a difference towards the end but, for a 21-year-old, I was immensely proud of my ride that day. I finished in the top-30 but the result wasn’t the important landmark that day. I was so young, so unsure of myself and whether I could ride for that long but I ticked off two boxes. Firstly, I managed to make it into the break – which was my job main job for the day – and secondly, I gained a lot of experience.
Later in the year, when I raced Il Lombardia, I made it into the break again and used the Amstel experience to help me. I can look back and laugh now at how nervous I was but Amstel is now a race that always has a place in my heart. It’s a race that suits me and I enjoy the fact that it can be so open to a number of riders with different characteristics. It’s actually a really exciting race to take part in. Growing up I remember watching guys like Michael Boogerd win in front of his home crowd, and then, years later, Philippe Gilbert attacking at the bottom of the Cauberg.
Tour de l'Ain 2013
I made it through my first season in 2012 and picked up some pleasing results along the way but I was still searching for my first win. A year later I continued to make progress and my results and performances were gradually improving but I was still searching for that maiden victory.
I completed my debut Tour de France and finished 15th overall but I was exhausted in the days and weeks that followed. Still, I went to the Clásica San Sebastián, picked up another top-20 and then arrived at the Tour de l’Ain. I had raced it in 2011, before turning professional, but this time I was a more accomplished rider and, despite the fatigue from the Tour, I really wanted to try and test myself.
The prologue was nothing to write home about but I kept out of trouble the next day when Fabio Duque won, and the following day I made the front group. The race would be won on the final two stages, with finishes at Lelex Monts-Jura and then Belley. On stage 3 I had great legs and took third behind Luis Leon Sanchez and Tom-Jelte Slagter but on the final stage I decided to go on the attack and take the initiative. I was desperate for that first win.
The stage was brutal with several climbs but the mammoth Col du Grand Colombier came towards the end of the day. That’s where the move had to come. One-by-one my rivals were dropped, unable to hold the pace, and before too long I found myself away with Wout Poels. We still had the descent and a rolling section before the finish but, with John Gadret and Hubert Dupont blocking moves for me in the chase, I knew that I had a chance.
At the finish, Poels took the sprint but I had done enough to take the jersey and seal the overall win. It’s in my DNA to ride the Classics and sometimes I find it hard to ride for GC in Grand Tours but taking my first overall classification was a special moment for me as a rider and a person.
Tour de France 2016, stage 19
I was in really good shape when I won my first Tour de France stage in St-Jean-de-Maurienne in 2015 but if I were to choose one Tour stage for my list then it would have to be my second win in 2016. For all the observers, it perhaps wasn’t the best Tour de France to follow because Team Sky were in charge and they did a really good job of controlling the race.
But due to the rain on stage 19 myself and Mikaël Cherel went away on a downhill and it ended up being one of my best ever climbing performances. The result and the win put me on the podium in Paris and it was an incredible feeling.
I had good form coming into the Tour that year, having finished second in the Critérium du Dauphiné. At the Tour, there were about seven of us on the same level behind Froome and the gaps were really tight in terms of GC. I knew that the last week of climbing in the Tour really suited me because it was so hard in the Alps with four mountain stages. Each day was getting harder and harder and there was no recovery between each day, but I was so confident in my form and I decided to turn it to my advantage.
When we put the hammer down on stage 19, none of it was particularly planned but the best and most memorable moments on the bike always come through instinct and adventure. I knew that I had the legs but I had to take my chance. I couldn’t hesitate and, looking back, it was a really brave move from the team because until that moment the tactics throughout most of the race had been relatively conservative. I had put in maybe my best ever time trial the day before and finished fifth but second to fifth were still separated by just over a minute. We had to accept that if we rolled the dice we might lose everything, but I had already finished in the top 10 in the Tour and I wanted more.
I learned a great deal from that experience. It taught me that if you don’t control a race it’s incredibly hard to find your own space but when there’s a chance, even if there’s just one, you have to take it.
UCI World Championships road race, 2018
In 2018, I finished sixth in the Tour de France. It wasn’t as spectacular as the years before but I was still pleased with my results. I had been consistent throughout the mountains, with just one bad day in the Pyrenees, but the overall level was good and as soon as we reached Paris my complete attention turned to the Worlds. I raced Deutschland in August to regain some base level fitness and then I started to tick off some one-day races in the build-up to Innsbruck.
The course in Austria was perfect for me so I worked hard on aiming in training to replicate the sort of efforts that would be needed for the important final climb on the course. Going into the race, Julian Alaphilippe was the leader but the collective group was super strong and we built up a positive atmosphere.
We decided to set the tempo on the final climb and when it was my turn to hit the front and take a pull I realized that Julian wasn’t on one of his best days. I had to come up with something else and play my own cards but I was able to make the cut with Michael Woods and Alejandro Valverde.
At the finish, it was logical to see Valverde win. He’s a rider who can win from so many scenarios but I think the ride in Austria made me really hungry for a world title, and especially the Worlds that will take place later this year in Switzerland. I know that I was so close in Austria but I did the best race that I could possibly do. My only hope would have been to drop Valverde on the climb and after that, all I could do was put in the best sprint possible.
La Forestière 2015
I know that this is a bit left-field but my final selection is a cross-country marathon mountain bike race. It’s called La Forestière and I’ve only done it once, back in 2015. It’s based in the hometown of my teammate Alexis Vuillermoz and it’s 100km.
What I enjoy about a race like this is the ethos it’s based on and the fact that it’s so, so different from the typical road racing I’m expected to do. I have a lot of passion for my job but after I’m finished with road cycling I’d really like to try my hand at more races like La Forestiere.
I lack technique when it comes to mountain biking but it’s an area in which I want to learn and when it comes to riding in the countryside I really feel a level of harmony that I don’t get anywhere else.
There are no tactics involved, the pace is slower but you’re alone for five hours and it’s you and the nature around you. I’d love to race a Cape Epic one day. I just need to find a good teammate.
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