Just a few hours before Chris Froome (Team Sky) emerged on stage at the Tour de France presentation on Thursday evening, Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) had called on the French public to respect the four-time champion in light of him being cleared of wrongdoing in his salbutamol case. The chorus of jeers that greeted the Briton, however, suggested those pleas had fallen on deaf ears.
Bardet, the great French hope who was, in stark contrast, cheered to the rafters in La Roche-sur-Yon, has drawn attention on several occasions for his comments on Froome’s case, which emerged in December. He has used phrases like ‘laughing stock’ and words like ‘shame’, and later regretted that they became sensational headlines.
As the 27-year-old sat down in the middle of the top table for AG2R La Mondiale’s pre-Tour press conference on Thursday, the first question that came his way concerned Froome, and he seemed happy to be able to get it out of the way and move on.
“Thanks for that question, we can deal with that issue now and then get to the sport afterwards,” he said. "I’m relieved that a verdict has been reached. Chris Froome has had a rough nine months, I think the whole of cycling has had a rough nine months. Now things are clear, the affair has been settled. Of course, cycling hasn’t covered itself in glory over the past months, but now it’s important that the Tour de France gets underway in a calm atmosphere.”
Conversation duly turned to the bike race itself, to Bardet’s own prospects and his reading of the next three weeks. However, the topic, which has dominated the build-up to this Tour de France, was bound to return. Asked about concerns that Froome’s presence might toxify the race – organisers ASO having attempted to block him from taking part before the verdict landed – Bardet called on the French public to put any ill-feeling to one side.
“I think now there’s a decision, we all have to accept it and respect it – the riders, the stakeholders, the public,” he said. “The Tour de France is a great national event and it should above all be about the sport. We have to respect each of the riders, not least Chris Froome, a four-time winner. The Tour must take place on neutral ground of fair play. I have confidence in the security and also in the French public, and I’m sure we’ll see a great race full of enthusiasm.”
Despite his eagerness to move on, Bardet still bemoaned the shadow the nine-month affair has case over the sport.
“I’m happy… well, I’m not happy for cycling. You can’t be happy after those nine months,” he said.
“We’ve heard very little about the elements that led to the decision, we know there was a tussle between experts which took time, and that the procedure was very long.
“If there’s someone to blame it’s not Froome, it’s the laxness of the rules. An adverse analytical finding, a positive test, this thing about thresholds – we don’t really know where we stand. That creates doubts and suspicions, and I’m the first to regret that, because cycling loses its credibility. Adverse analytical findings, positive tests, thresholds, they’re all there but then afterwards we have these tests and procedures, and it causes this great opaqueness.”
Better than ever
When the conversation did turn to the race itself, Bardet insisted he is a stronger and more complete rider than the one who has made the podium at the past two editions of the Tour.
“I’m dedicating myself to it, and thanks to my coach and my team I have really felt better year after year,” he said. “I feel physically better than two years ago when I finished second. It’s not the only thing you have to take into account if you want to win the yellow jersey but I feel stronger, even than last year, with the numbers and everything like that.”
Bardet laughed when he was dubbed a ‘maniac’ by one journalist, referring to his constant search for improvements and attention to detail. He explained that it’s not a case of one specific area, but of making small incremental steps year-on-year, from attacking in the mountains and managing the time trials to knowing when to save energy.
However, he repeatedly pointed out that, at the Tour de France, the physical is only half the equation, and made repeated reference to his experience. This will be Bardet’s sixth Tour de France, having made his debut in 2013 and his first big impact in 2014 with a top 10 finish. A stage win followed in 2015 before his two podium finishes in the past two editions.
At 27, he feels capable to handle the pressure that goes with being a true yellow jersey contender, not least in front of an expectant nation that hasn’t had a home champion since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
“In the critical situations – and we are certainly going to see them in this Tour de France – and in the difficult moments, the moments of doubt and of panic, you have to stay serene,” Bardet said.
“Personally, having that accumulation of Tours under my belt helps me to put things into perspective and really fight for the yellow jersey.”