For Romain Bardet, it really was a Sunday in Hell at the Tour de France. The AG2R La Mondiale leader was shaking his head well before the end of the stage, and once across the sanctuary of the finish line, he fell to the floor and sat slumped against the roadside barriers, his face covered in dirt. He wouldn't have looked out of place in the middle of the famous Roubaix velodrome – a matter of metres away – on the second Sunday of April.
The puppet masters pulling the strings of fortune took little pity on the great French hope on the highly anticipated cobbled stage of the 2018 Tour de France but, somehow, Bardet came through unscathed. Three punctures and tens of kilometres spent desperately chasing the front of the race, and only seven seconds conceded; he called it a miracle.
"I wanted to take the race on but I punctured three times and spent most of my day behind," said a rueful Bardet once he'd picked himself up off the ground.
"I never punctured once when we were training on the pavé, and today I punctured three times."
The problems started early, with Bardet suffering his first puncture on the first of the 15 cobbled sectors. He had to change bikes twice before he rejoined the peloton. The second puncture came on sector 9 from Auchy to Bersée with 50km to go, and this time the situation was more critical, with the race in full swing. Oliver Naesen and Silvan Dillier proceeded to slog their guts out to bring Bardet back to the front of the race, but it took 25 kilometres and considerable effort.
The trouble seemed to be over, but bad luck struck for a third time on the final sector, inside the final 10km. The gap had grown to 40 seconds by the time Bardet got going again but, once again with Naesen and Gallopin in front of him – and joined by the Movistar band similarly rescuing Mikel Landa after his carsh – Bardet managed to close the gap and finish just seven seconds down on the rest of his yellow-jersey rivals.
"It's a miracle it was only seven seconds. It's a miracle I'm still in the race," he said.
"Without my teammates, the Tour would be over. We could have packed up and gone home. If I'm still in the race, it's thanks to them.
"We never gave up hope that it would come back. I managed my efforts well and never really went into the red. I had world-class teammates around me, and I knew they couldn't be going any faster up front. We gritted our teeth and got back up there each time."
It might seem strange, given they were on the receiving end of a 'miracle', but the overwhelming mood in the AG2R camp was one of disappointment.
Directeur sportif Julien Jurdie summed it up: "We limited the damage, but we had the potential to do more."
While many of the general classification contenders had approached the stage with trepidation and the simple aim of surviving, Bardet had seen it as more of an opportunity.
The Frenchman is best known for his exploits in the mountains but he is more of an all-rounder than he is given credit for, and although he has hardly raced on cobbles, he felt at home on recon rides and proved his mettle on rough terrain with second place at Strade Bianche in March and a solid ride on the Belgian cobbles at Dwars door Vlaanderen later that month.
"It's a shame that I wasn't able to do more," Bardet said. "It's days like this that mark the legend of our sport, and I really enjoy being a part of them."
For Naesen, a true cobbles specialist who once again proved invaluable, the frustration was evident. The Belgian's spring campaign had been blighted by bad luck, and although he always knew he'd be riding exclusively for Bardet here, he rued the fact he was once again burning his matches at the back of the race rather than the front.
"Taking into account the bad luck, it's not too bad, but in another way it's still a bad day," he said. "We were much stronger than just coming home in that group."
After losing time in stage 3's team time trial and a further half a minute on the Mûr-de-Bretagne on stage 6 after another late mechanical, Bardet now finds himself 17th overall, 1:50 down on the leading GC contender, Geraint Thomas, but less than a minute behind most of his rivals.
Once the disappointment subsides, Bardet can take heart from the power he felt in his legs, and look ahead to the second half of the race with optimism.
"The first rest day is about recovering from this," he said with optimism, "and then it's into the mountains."
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