Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) said on the first rest day of the Tour de France that he'd never felt so good in the race's first week, and Thursday's stage 12 finish at Peyragudes proved it was no bluff.
The Frenchman out-kicked the rest of the yellow jersey group with a perfectly-timed acceleration on the airport finish in the Pyrenees, blasting away with less than 500 metres to go to take his third stage win in three years.
On the road to Chambery last Sunday, Bardet had managed to place Chris Froome (Team Sky) under pressure with his high speed descending, but a working alliance between the Briton and the Astana riders had seen the Frenchman reeled in.
This time out, there was no stopping the 26-year-old, whose first place in Peyragudes also nets the AG2R La Mondiale leader a 10-second time bonus. He remains third overall, but is now only 25 seconds off new yellow jersey Fabio Aru (Astana), and just 19 seconds behind Froome.
On a Pyrenean stage that Bardet had described as a climbers' marathon, there was no sign that Froome was going to crack until the last 500 metres. What seemed to be a stage finish made for Froome – and one where in 2012 he had managed to drop his own leader, albeit only briefly – suddenly became one for the French to celebrate their third win of this year's Tour.
"It's my third victory in three years in the Tour," Bardet pointed out. "I'm going to celebrate this because it means a lot for the team. Now I can concentrate on GC, with the overall victory as my big goal. There are still some really important mountain stages to go, and this is going to be a big battle."
Second last year, Bardet warned that the counter-blow from Sky on Friday after losing the yellow jersey could cause huge damage. "They will not be happy with today's result, they have the strongest team and we are all at a very similar level. Today the gaps were small, tomorrow [Friday], I think they will be way bigger."
As lucid as ever, Bardet pointed out that for the Tour, not having Sky in control in the mountains represented a major voyage in the dark.
"We don't know, at all, how Astana will control the situation," he said. "We will have to be very watchful. Chris Froome is a formidable opponent and there is still a very long way to go."
Bardet recognised that he would have liked to have won on the team's 'home soil' when the Tour reached Chambery, close to where AG2R La Mondiale are based. His knowledge of the terrain in Peyragudes, however, helped him tip the balance in his favour.
"When I came here on a recon in May with my parents, this place was completely empty, like a ghost town, but I knew it would be very different today. I was the first person to ride on this road," he pointed out.
"But I visualized what was coming up before we got here, and I knew where I wanted to attack. It was disappointing not to win last Sunday, but today's a very different story."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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