"He's going to talk, just step back and let him breathe," AG2R La Mondiale press officer Yves Perret barked at the scrum of television cameras and microphones that coagulated around Romain Bardet atop the Col d'Izoard after stage 18 of the Tour de France.
The ring of reporters around Bardet loosened, but almost imperceptibly, but as he sat on the tarmac with his legs crumpled beneath him, the Frenchman's exhaustion was such that he seemed scarcely aware of their presence.
Bardet nodded as his soigneur quietly confirmed that he had moved up to second in the general classification, 23 seconds behind Chris Froome (Team Sky), after beating the maillot jaune to third place on the stage. He then looked up and nodded to Perret once he had drawn enough breath to speak.
"I gave everything, I thought I was going to suffocate after the finish line," Bardet said, now smothered once more in a blanket of microphones. "It was really all about mentality. We rode like a great team, I really gave everything. I know this climb well. I knew when I was going to make my effort and I knew that it was going to hurt."
Bardet had begun the final mountain stage of the Tour de France 29 seconds behind Froome and, with a 23-kilometre time trial to come in Marseille on Sunday, this was almost certainly his final opportunity to wrest the yellow jersey away from Team Sky. AG2R La Mondiale laid out their intentions by setting the tempo on the Col de Vars, while Bardet's teammate Alexis Vuillermoz looked to stretch out the yellow jersey group with a sustained acceleration seven kilometres from the top of the Izoard.
The much-anticipated onslaught from Bardet did not arrive until the final three kilometres, however, and despite its ferocity, both Froome and Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) were able to match it. Soon afterwards, Froome responded with a kick of his own on the brief descent through the Casse Déserte before the summit, and come the final ramps to the line, it was clear that Bardet was merely fighting for seconds – and perhaps second place overall – rather than the maillot jaune.
"My teammates launched me. Everybody was flat out. I played a bit tactically before my attack, I made it look like I wasn't super and then I made my effort just before the descent. I gave everything in the finale," said Bardet, who placed third on the stage, 20 seconds behind winner Warren Barguil (Sunweb). "The ideal scenario would have been to bridge across to Warren but I'm happy for him, he won à la pédale."
At the finish of the preceding stage in Serre Chevalier, Bardet had been among the riders introduced to guest of honour Emmanuel Macron, and the French president tweeted his encouragement afterwards, saying "now it's a question of mentality."
The Tour is also a question of intelligence, however. Bardet might have felt the pull of legend as he pedaled on towards the evocative Casse Déserte, but the windy conditions called for pragmatism. Besides, much like the finish line, Bardet was left with precious little breathing room on the Izoard, where Sky's imposing collective strength was enough to constrict the race and discourage early attacks.
"I did exactly what I intended to do. Of course, everybody dreams of big epic attacks but sometimes it's more opportune to wait. There's a difference between dreams and reality. I needed to make one big attack," Bardet said. "I wanted to attack sooner, but there were a lot of Sky riders in the front group and there was wind on the climb, so instead we did the maximum as a team to make the race hard. The team did a remarkable job. We weren't able to distance Froome but we gave it our all."
Although Bardet was unable to divest Froome of yellow, he did move above Uran into second after putting six seconds – four in bonuses and two on the road – into the Colombian in the finale. Bardet is in line to become the first Frenchman to finish on the podium in successive years since Richard Virenque in 1996 and 1997.
Froome's superiority over Bardet against the watch suggests that, despite the tight margins, his overall victory is all but assured. Logically, Bardet ought to be more concerned about defending his second place from Uran (3rd at 29 seconds), but the gaps are such that a modicum of hope remains.
"Nothing is decided yet but the Tour is already a success. I responded present in the mountains. I've confirmed what I did last year," Bardet said. "There are still some stages to come, and I'm certainly motivated for the time trial. I like the final time trial of the Tour de France, everything is still possible in any case. I'll fight like I did today, with a lot of heart and desire."
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