Romain Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale team attempted to break Team Sky's stranglehold on the Critérium du Dauphiné on Saturday's short, intense mountain stage 6. Even if their aggression moved the Frenchman up from seventh to third overall, Bardet found himself eight seconds further adrift of the overall lead by the end of the day.
With the Montée de Bisanne, the Col du Pré, the Cormet de Roselend, and the summit finish to la Rosière all packed into 110 kilometres, the penultimate stage always had the potential to be an explosive one, with AG2R ready to add the dynamite.
After an early break went, Team Sky dictated the tempo on the Brisanne, but then Bardet’s men took over and asserted themselves on the Col du Pré, shredding the peloton. While Team Sky’s former yellow jersey wearers Michal Kwiatkowski and Gianni Moscon were dropped – along with Vincenzo Nibali – race leader Geraint Thomas was present and fortunately had the indefatigable Tao Geoghegan Hart, and even Jonathan Castroviejo, to shepherd him towards the final climb.
While it was perhaps refreshing to see AG2R La Mondiale disrupt Team Sky’s stranglehold that has become so familiar on the roads of France, it was telling that Thomas said that he was "more or less in control the whole time".
So there were mixed emotions in the AG2R La Mondiale camp.
"It didn't work out quite as we'd have liked but nevertheless we tried to move the race and take the initiative, and Romain was up there once again at the end with the strongest guys," team manager Vincent Lavenu said in La Rosière.
After Bardet attacked briefly on the descent towards the final climb, AG2R La Mondiale sent Pierre Latour up to the breakaway, though he never gained enough of an advantage to have a real impact. Geoghegan Hart led the way for Thomas and, for a third day in a row, it fell to Dan Martin to kick off hostilities. Soon he, Bardet, Thomas, and Adam Yates emerged at the head of affairs – just behind breakaway winner Pello Bilbao – and rode away from the rest of the overall contenders.
In the final few hundred metres, Thomas asserted his authority by kicking away, gaining a couple of seconds on Martin and Bardet and six bonus seconds for second place for a second day in a row.
"It was good, I enjoyed it. We tried to take the race on and that paid off because I've got myself into a podium position this evening," Bardet said while warming down.
"We set a fast pace on the penultimate climb and we caused some trouble to Team Sky. That was a good point for us. We had a real role in the race. I really tip my hat to my teammates, who went all in. The Dauphiné is also a preparation race, so we're taking our marks for the Tour."
As for Thomas: "Honestly, there was nothing I could do against him today. He has such a big lead that he can just manage things, and he was the strongest in the finale today. When we come to the slightly gentler gradients, being a former track rider, he can really dish out the pain.
Sunday's last chance saloon
With one stage remaining, Bardet finds himself third overall, 2:01 down on Thomas. Above him is Yates at 1:29, and below him Martin at 2:30.
Even with Thomas looking so commanding, the final stage is certainly the sort that could turn a race on its head. Going over the Cormet de Roselend from the other side, and then the Col des Saisies, the 136km route then descends to Saint-Gervais and the foot of the final climb of the Bettex.
If Bardet needed any inspiration, this was the scene of one of his great triumphs. At the 2016 Tour de France he attacked on the descent and went solo up the Bettex in the driving rain, hauling himself onto the final podium in the process.
"I'm not thinking about two years ago," Bardet said. "I have good memories but I'm focused on this Dauphiné, and trying to go as far as possible. We'll see if that climb, like in 2016, can act as a springboard for my ambitions.
"With fatigue accumulated over the past week, we already saw some decent gaps today, so I think it can be the same tomorrow. It’s a difficult climb. You can't forget that after only a few kilometres we'll be on the Cormet de Roselend. On a climb as hard as that anything can happen."
While Bardet struck an optimistic tone, his team manager Lavenu seemed more resigned.
"Tomorrow we can say that second place is conceivable. First place, that seems difficult, unless the leader really cracks, but I don't think that's going to happen, especially with the team they have," he said.
"Romain is third now. Yates showed some small signs of weakness at the end there. That shows that there's a second place to go after, which is nothing to be sniffed at – this is the Dauphiné. We hope for an active race again. It will be difficult to control the situation on that type of parcours, but then for Sky it seems pretty easy...
"Given what we've seen of Sky so far, it would seem difficult to think about destabilizing them, but in top level sport we know that nothing is done until the finish line has been crossed."
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