The Frenchman rode the Tour of Oman last month and backed it up with the Abu Dhabi Tour last week. He finished 6th at the former and 12th at the latter, feeling below his best on the respective summit finishes, but explained that results weren’t high on his priority list.
“I’ve had a good spell in the Middle East - we’ve fulfilled our objectives in getting back into the rhythm of racing, and I’ve been feeling better and better each day,” he told Cyclingnews and L’Equipe on the final day in Abu Dhabi.
The race started last Thursday, but Bardet was there from Monday, putting himself through his paces with some intense sessions on the Yas Marina F1 circuit, including the morning before the final stage. With three of the four stages flat, and ticked off in relaxed fashion, that sort of workload was needed.
“It’s a shame, the race could be more difficult, I guess,” he said. “You just have one climb, less than 30 minutes full gas – it’s not really enough.
“So it was important to train around it and do some big efforts to sharpen my top-end condition. I’m happy with the work we’ve done here. It’s given me a good base and I can’t wait to get back to Europe for the serious stuff.”
The serious stuff begins with Paris-Nice this weekend, a race Bardet describes as the first event where there is something “at stake". Indeed, he performed a reconnaissance ride last month of the Col de la Couillole, the 15km climb that will be the race’s highest ever summit finish on stage 7, providing the key general classification showdown.
The individual time trial on stage 4 is short (14.5km) but equally important, not least because it will give Bardet a first race on the new Factor Slick TT bike, the company’s first-ever time trial machine, which was developed with significant input from the Frenchman.
“The route is difficult and the conditions can be a factor in a ‘Race to the Sun’ that is often at the mercy of the weather,” he said in an AG2R La Mondiale team announcement. “The Col de la Couillole, which I climbed once in training a few weeks ago, is very hard for the month of March.”
After his Middle Eastern sojourn Bardet is well aware of the importance of a good result at Paris-Nice. Finishing on the podium at the Tour de France last year was something of a breakthrough for the 26-year-old, but he insists he has a good deal of developing and maturing to do before he can deliver on French hopes for a first home winner of the Tour since 1985, and performing at week-long races like Paris-Nice is an integral part of that.
"At the moment we're not going to week-long races with the objective of winning them; we go to achieve the best result possible. Now, I must try to win them, and risk losing them - that's the next step,” Bardet said late last year. "I need to gain the experience of wearing the jersey and my team defending it."