The heavens opened with a vengeance and it rained long and hard just minutes before the curtain went up on Romain Bardet's rest day press conference at the Tour de France on Monday, but the Frenchman insisted that nothing so far, let alone an extremely heavy summer shower, could cast a dampener on his particular parade.
Third overall, having put Chris Froome (Team Sky) under some keenly-felt pressure at the end of the extremely mountainous stage 9, Bardet is currently feeling more than upbeat, he told reporters. In fact, the AG2R rider claimed he had never felt so strong in the first week of the Tour.
"My only concern is that I've not hit top form too early, I want to make the most of this situation," Bardet said, speaking to the press in an open-beamed conference room of a country house hotel on the outskirts of Bergerac. "I'm very pleased with my level, but years of experience make me prudent."
Bardet's satisfaction was palpable despite his typically measured words and an apparent unwillingness to throw caution to the wind when asked about his chances. He is currently 51 seconds behind Froome.
"I don't know if I can get it," Bardet said when asked if the yellow jersey was an impossible dream. "Either way, I'm working hard to try to get it. That's going to be complicated, Sky are very strong, they've got four riders who can lay down a strong pace in the mountains. I'm keeping my feet on the ground."
In the short-term, the terrain for Bardet trying to wrest yellow from Froome will at least be familiar to him. He has, he said, done a thorough reconnaissance of Peyragudes and the cols which precede it on Thursday's 214-kilometre leg through the Pyrenees, which he described as a 'climbers' marathon.' Together with the following day's short stage to Foix, it is the first half of what Bardet termed an 'intense' back-to-back mountain challenge. He added that he would be on the lookout for unexpected moments to attack, much like his downhill move on stage 9 off the Mont du Chat.
Lacing his more optimistic observations with words of caution, Bardet said: "We have to be careful, the ranking is not set in stone at all. It's better to be in the place I'm in, but nothing is won yet. There's still a long way to go."
On the plus side, Bardet observed that "being able to respond to Froome's attacks is very reassuring. If he could have broken away from the rest of us on the Planche des Belles Filles or on the ascent of the Mont du Chat, he'd have done that."
The strength of the AG2R La Mondiale team, Bardet said, was another encouraging sign. "Without us yesterday [stage nine] would have been nothing but a Sky-led royal procession," he insisted. "We've got a role to play, we're agitators. That's the kind of bike racing I love."
Even so, Bardet had a warning. "I don't know if Froome is stronger than last year. But he's definitely stronger than he was before."
The key question, of course, is where Froome's physical upper limit now lies. If, as Sky have said, they expect him to get stronger as the race progresses, then it could be that Bardet will have a very tough time challenging the Briton in the Pyrenees. But at least he seems determined to try.
The bigger question, about whether Bardet can follow in Bernard Hinault's wheel-tracks to become the next French winner of the Tour, is seemingly all but obligatory in every press conference he gives. On Monday, at least, it was not broached so directly. Instead, it was put to him that the general public's expectations of what he can achieve had reached new heights last year when he finished second overall in the Tour.
"I'm very aware of that, of course," Bardet said. "I know we've been waiting for a successor in France for Bernard Hinault since 1985. When he won the Tour, though, I hadn't been born, it doesn't form part of my own story."
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