The memories are fresh but, mercifully, the wounds appear to have healed. Just ten days ago, Romain Bardet led over the summit of Picón Blanco en route to winning stage 3 of the Vuelta a Burgos, but the injuries he sustained in a crash on the descent to the finish would ultimately cost him overall victory.
Bardet renews acquaintances with Picón Blanco on Monday afternoon, when the Vuelta a España brings the curtain down on its opening stanza in Burgos with the first summit finish of the race. The Frenchman outshone many podium contenders in Saturday evening’s opening time trial in Burgos, limiting his losses on Primož Roglič to 17 seconds, and suggesting that he had recovered from the effects of his recent crash.
“It went well yesterday but that was a very short effort. Still, I recovered a lot in the last week, so I hope it’s going to go well now in the coming days,” Bardet told Cyclingnews in Caleruega ahead of stage 2. “I’m happy with my time trial. It was only 7km but it was a good start for me.”
The next pivotal 7km or so on this Vuelta will come on the wickedly steep slopes of Picón Blanco on stage 3. The ascent, exposed to the wind and punctuated by sudden stretches of double-digit gradients, seemed to confound many at the Vuelta a Burgo, with some riders seemingly lulled into shipwrecking themselves long before the summit.
Bardet seemed to navigate the climb better than most, resisting the temptation to follow the wave of early accelerations before attacking at a considerable rate of knots closer to the top. Even so, nuance can only carry a man so far when the road pitches up to 17 per cent.
“It’s certainly a very particular climb, but in the end it’s still the legs that make the difference. The gradients are steep and it’s going to be very hot, but on a climb like that, it’s the legs that really make the difference,” he said.
Bardet avoided the crash in the final 4km of Sunday’s stage that saw fellow podium contenders Hugh Carthy (EF-Nippo) and Adam Yates (Ineos) lose half a minute of time, and he lies 11th overall ahead of the first mountaintop finish, still 17 seconds behind Roglič. Like many, he expects the maillot rojo and his Jumbo-Visma squad to be to the fore on Picón Blanco.
“It’s going to be special, because the first summit finish of a Grand Tour always is, and I think it will be ridden very fast,” Bardet said. “Roglič already has the jersey and I think he’ll want to win up there too. Tomorrow will be the first big battle.”
Bardet’s lone previous appearance at the Vuelta came in 2017, when he lined up in Nîmes four weeks after taking his second successive podium finish at the Tour de France. The cumulative fatigue contributed to his lowest-ever Grand Tour finish of 17th on that occasion, but this time out, the Vuelta is an outright goal rather than afterthought.
After moving to AG2R-Citroën to Team DSM this season, Bardet opted to skip the Tour for the first time since he was a neo-professional. After placing 7th overall at the Giro d’Italia, Bardet spent July training in the relative seclusion of the Austrian Alps rather than racing amid the madding crowds of the Tour. It made for a novel experience.
“It was a bit special alright, although it was a choice that I made myself together with the team,” he said. “Now I’m just happy to be at the Vuelta in good condition.”
While Bardet has performed consistently since joining DSM, it has been a trying year for the team as a whole, particularly when compared to their remarkable sequence of results during last season’s compressed, post-lockdown calendar. By the end of the Tour, the squad had collected just one victory in 2021 – Cees Bol’s stage win at Paris-Nice – though Bardet, Michael Storer and Nikias Arndt have since added to the tally.
The team and its reputedly rigid methodology were criticised in the Dutch and Belgian press as the Tour drew on, while this weekend, Ilan Van Wilder hinted at a future away from DSM after he was omitted from their Vuelta line-up. Bardet, however, downplayed the idea that the squad’s collective morale had taken a blow over the campaign.
“The atmosphere is very good,” Bardet said. “I wasn’t on the Tour, I was on a training camp, but everything went very well there, just like it has since the start of the season. From a sporting point of view, the work has been done. There’s just been a little bit missing [in races], but there’s a good dynamic on the team and I feel myself progressing. It’s very positive.”
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