The moths have been drawn elsewhere on this Tour de France, attracted by brighter lights. The maillot jaune of Julian Alaphilippe and the vivid opening act of Thibaut Pinot have dominated column inches in the home press this past week, but the attention will be focused on Romain Bardet when the peloton rides into his hometown of Brioude on Sunday afternoon.
The subdued melody of Bardet's Tour to this point has been in keeping with the mood music of his entire season. After conceding more than a minute to his podium rivals at La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 6, he finds himself in 23rd place overall, 3:20 behind Alaphilippe and 2:27 down on Pinot.
The latter is the more significant reference point, and not only because Pinot is the best-placed of the pre-race favourites in the overall standings. Contemporaries in the amateur ranks, Bardet and Pinot have always found themselves measured against one another as professionals in their home country.
Just as one supposedly cannot praise Lionel Messi without denigrating Cristiano Ronaldo, and vice-versa, a rebuke of Bardet seems implicit in any acclaim of Pinot's fine start to this Tour. Pinot himself balanced this particular equation in 2016 and 2017 when Bardet finished on the podium and he abandoned the Tour prematurely on each occasion.
Bardet, rigorous to a fault in his preparation, is perhaps his own most stringent critic. In a room at the Ibis in Belfort on Thursday night, he told his AG2R teammates that he had been "ashamed" of his performance on La Planche des Belles Filles that afternoon, and the backroom staff have seemed to spend the intervening period attempted to apply a salve to his seeping morale.
"We know that he can come back," directeur sportif Julien Jurdie told Cyclingnews. "Obviously on Thursday night, his morale wasn't the best, because it was an important stage and he couldn't follow the best riders. But on Friday morning, the morale was already a lot better."
His words were echoed by manager Vincent Lavenu, who said that Bardet's dark night of the soul was "normal for an athlete of such a high level" and that his objectives for the remainder of the Tour have not been revised. "We're not laying down arms," Lavenu told Cyclingnews. "Just because he's three minutes down now, it doesn't mean he's out of the general classification."
At the start in Belfort on Friday morning, Bardet had not yet completed his self-flagellation, though he attempted to strike an upbeat note about his prospects in the two weeks still to come. "I had a setback and I take complete responsibility," Bardet said. "I didn't come to the Tour to do that, and I'm determined to change that and make up for it."
It remains to be seen if Bardet's setback at La Planche des Belles Filles was a simple jour sans or an indication of a deeper malaise. Jurdie explained that his rider had not given cause for concern on any of the day's early climbs but found himself unable to respond when the pace ratcheted upwards in the closing two kilometres.
"We were confident. We were communicating over the radio and Romain didn't have any worries," Jurdie said. "But in the last 2km when David Gaudu accelerated, Romain started to struggle. He had no energy to go with them. The time lost was significant, but we still have plenty to do on this Tour."
Bardet placed second at the 2016 Tour and was arguably even more assured in taking third overall twelve months later, but his anticipated tilt at the yellow jersey never quite materialised last year when he had to settle for a distant 6th overall in Paris. The Frenchman has always prided himself on his attention to detail, but there is a sense that his constant search for minor improvements has been inching him further away from his objective.
His build-up to the Tour was interrupted by a crash at the Volta a Catalunya in March, but even before that fall, Bardet was delivering consistent but somewhat flat performances. He warmed up for July with 10th at the Critérium du Dauphiné and then second at the inaugural Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, where he was outkicked by Jesus Herrada at the summit of the Bald Mountain.
"This year, he hasn't had the success he'd have liked in the beginning of the season," Lavenu said. "We'll analyse the season when the Tour is finished with the coaching staff, and we might plan his season differently in the future. We're always searching for little details that can make the rider perform better. Sometimes those things work, and other times they don't. But in every case, you always have to analyse with a cool head and not react solely on emotion."
Jurdie, for his part, believes that Bardet's impediment so far this season has been partly a lack of self-belief. He hasn't won a race since the Classic d'Ardèche at the start of 2018, and he never quite managed to rack up a major result in the early part of this year.
"It's clear that at the moment the confidence isn't really there, and a cyclist needs confidence," Jurdie said. "Romain's start to the season was quite complicated with his crash in Catalunya, and then the Classics and Dauphiné didn't go as planned.
"He wasn't full of confidence before the Tour, but Romain is a guy who puts a lot of effort into his preparation. We're 100 per cent behind him. I've seen the work that he's put in, I know his condition is good. There are still five, six or even seven very hard stages left so it's up to us as a team to help him get back up there."
At Saint-Étienne on Saturday, Bardet finished quietly in the main group of favourites, 20 seconds behind the attacking duo of Pinot and Alaphilippe, who ignited the stage by forging clear on the Côte de la Jaillère.
On Sunday, regardless of how he fares, Bardet will be the centre of attention on the Bastille Day stage from Saint-Étienne to Brioude. The late climb of the Saint-Just looks like a platform for further pyrotechnics from Alaphilippe rather than the start of the Bardet comeback, but Lavenu hopes the homecoming can offer some light amid a trying period.
"He'll have a lot of support on the side of the road and at the finish, with the public around him and his family," Lavenu said. "That will help Romain."
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