Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) is one of the French riders in this Tour de France who carries the hope of the home nation to finally find a successor for 1985 Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault, ending a 31-year drought without a Frenchman on the top step of the podium in Paris.
Bardet won the super-combativity prize in the 2015 Tour de France and finished ninth in the general classification. One year earlier he finished sixth overall. This season he's been going well with top-10 results in the Oman Tour, Vuelta a Catalunya and Paris-Nice.
Last month he impressed with a second place at the Critérium du Dauphiné, finishing just behind Chris Froome (Sky). It's clear that the now 25-year-old rider is aiming high in this year's edition of the Tour de France. Four stages into the three-week race the man with race number 41 was unable to say much about his current form as he felt that his legs weren't tested yet.
"It's OK. You have to wait for the mountains before you can really tell how you're going but for now it's good. The first test is at Lac de Payolle and then the finish in Andorra," Bardet told Cyclingnews after the finish of the third stage in Angers. The stage to Lac de Payolle is the seventh stage on Friday July 8. The stage to Andorra features on July 10, when the riders race from Vielha to Arcalis.
Bardet didn't mention Wednesday's stage 5 from Limoges to mountain resort Le Lioran. Though he doesn't consider the medium mountains stage in the Central Massif to be a major test, he certainly marked out the stage. Bardet will be the so-called local d'étappe as he hails from the Central Massif region near the finish. He'll also be supported at the start, as his girlfriend resides from Condat, just outside start town Limoges.
He certainly knows his ways in the Cantal region, where five categorized climbs spice the final 80 kilometres of the fifth stage. In an interview with regional newspaper Le Populaire, he explained that he expected a long breakaway move to go the distance, with another battle being held amongst the GC-contenders. He felt that the major difficulty will not be the climbs in particular but the concatenation of climbs and the lack of time to recover. He highlighted the descents of the Pas de Peyrol and the Col du Perthus as being as important as the climbs.
For GC riders like Bardet, the first stages of the Tour de France are extremely stressful. There's no major obstacles in terms of climbing but the peloton acts very nervous as all jerseys are still at stake. It's mainly about avoiding crashes and mechanical problems, getting into the right echelons when there's crosswinds, finishing in the first peloton in all stages and meanwhile trying to save energy.
That worked out well so far for Bardet. He's featuring in the ever smaller list of 23 riders who are tied in fourth place at 14 seconds from race leader Peter Sagan (Tinkoff). Fellow GC contenders like Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Richie Porte (BMC) already lost valuable time in previous stages.
Contador lost time in the uphill finish, struggling with a shoulder injury caused by two crashes. Porte encountered a poorly timed flat tyre late in the race. Other riders like Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) lost a handful of seconds when failing to stick with the main group on the final climb of stage 2. Bardet finished at the back of the main group in the uphill finish in Cherbourg-En-Cotentin but made the cut and still has a clean slate.
After completing the long third stage from Granville to Angers at a mostly relaxed pace he finished the bunch sprint in 70th position.
"It was very good. It was a bit nervous in the final but that's normal. It's the first week of the Tour. It's less dangerous," Bardet told Cyclingnews. "It's going well at this moment. It's less nervous than other years, I feel. Everybody knows they have to safe energy for the second and third week."
On Tuesday morning, Bardet was clearly still very relaxed. He was spotted in the Village Départ, the VIP zone at the start area – where he received a new haircut.