Outside the Bar Postel in the centre of Brioude, the band was playing a passable version of 'The Last Time' by the Rolling Stones. Their competition around the block at Godart Daniel was belting out Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Sweet Home Alabama'. Both felt appropriate backing music for the homecoming of the town's most famous son, Romain Bardet, on stage 9 of the Tour de France.
Brioude was hosting La Grande Boucle for just the second time – it was the site of a stage start in 2008 – and it seems difficult to imagine that a town of 7,100 inhabitants could allow itself the extravagance too many more times before the end of Bardet's career.
Murals of Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale teammates were applied to municipal buildings in the town centre to add to the festive ambience of the Bastille Day stage. The playing field in the municipal stadium, meanwhile, was decorated with an imprint of Bardet's face, created by grass artist Aurélien Baude, who took two weeks to create the image.
Despite – or perhaps because of – his trying Tour to this point, Bardet was determined to mark the occasion with a show of defiance. On the Côte de Saint-Just, a little over 13km from home, he attacked forcefully from a peloton that had been travelling along more than quarter of an hour behind the break of the day.
Bardet was joined in his effort by Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), but their offensive was a short-lived one as Team Ineos restored order at the head of the peloton, which rolled home together into Brioude. In the overall standings, Bardet lies in 23rd place, still 3:20 behind maillot jaune Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and 2:27 behind Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).
"It was very emotional. These are my home roads and a lot of people I knew very well were cheering from the side of the road, so it was a very special day," Bardet said after wheeling to a halt just past the finishing straight. It remains to be seen if this brief but spirited flicker on home roads can ignite his guttering Tour challenge.
"It's time for me to kick-start, I hope so," Bardet said. "I have big hopes for the second and also third week. It can only be better."
Bardet's mother was among the well-wishers waiting for him at the AG2R La Mondiale bus, which was parked not far from the house in which he had grown up. "It's crazy," Bardet smiled, now encircled by a scrum of microphones and cameras. "I've been racing a bike for 19 years, so to come past here… Destiny is a funny thing."
Previewing the Brioude finale for Vélo Magazine ahead of the Tour, Bardet cautioned that the summit of the Côte de Saint-Just was exposed to the wind. It was a prescient warning; his attack was doomed in part by the unkind breeze that repelled him near the top of the category 3 climb.
"I need to take opportunities as they come, and even more so on these roads, which I know well," Bardet said. "I know the roads well, unfortunately, but I haven't yet mastered the wind direction and we quickly found ourselves riding into a headwind. But this is the kind of approach I want to have in this second part of the Tour."
Bardet cut a disconsolate figure on the dirt road atop La Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday, where his Tour challenge suffered such a notable setback. That evening, he told his teammates that he was "ashamed" of his performance, and he was just as self-critical when he spoke to reporters at the start in Belfort the following morning. He wore a lighter bearing after the Tour's trek through his native Auvergne. For better or for worse, the race is still long.
"I'm determined to fight, like all my team. We're going into the high mountains next week and I hope to play an important role," Bardet said. "When you take a blow, there are two options, you either turn the other cheek, or you give back what you've just been given. I didn't choose the first option."
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