Bardet: The Vuelta is a voyage into the unknown
Frenchman starts Vuelta a España for first time in his career
The Vuelta a España's start in Nimes has provided Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) with at least some semblance of familiar surroundings, but France's most successful Tour de France racer in recent years had no qualms in recognising on Friday that he will be mostly fighting on very new terrain this August.
The 2017 Vuelta will be the first time, in fact, that Bardet has ridden a Grand Tour other than the Tour de France.
"I'm going a little bit the unknown," Bardet told reporters. "But I'm very happy with that and keen to see what the second Grand Tour of the year can offer.
"It's the second part of the season and I'm maybe not as fresh as before the Tour, but hopefully I'll be able to show some kind of good condition. There are lots of hilly stages, so there will be lots of chances for me to show what I can do."
Second in the 2016 Tour de France and third in 2017, Bardet recognised that he had finished the Tour feeling very tired, and that he had needed to rest, first, but that after that, "I've done ten days good training before the Vuelta started."
As for the favourites, Bardet pointed to the logical top candidates of Chris Froome (Sky), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Fabio Aru (Astana), the four riders who have won a Grand Tour in the past.
"It's a new challenge, and I feel I'm ready for that. We first had this idea of doing the Vuelta several months back and I want to see what I can do."
"For Romain, this is a Grand Tour, and that always means something very important," AG2R La Mondiale boss Vincent Lavenu added to Cyclingnews. "It's also the first time he's done two Grand Tours in the same year.
"Of course this Vuelta is something unknown for him, but he's a champion, and cycling's champions, the [Alberto] Contadors and [Chris] Froomes, they don't just say, 'I'm only going for stage wins.' They'll always want to do a good GC in a Grand Tour.
"So he's starting the race with the idea of doing that good GC. That may have to change, we may start looking for stage wins, but that's the initial idea.
"He's not done any Vuelta recon because he preferred to rest rather than check out stages after what was a very stressful Tour and it was a tough battle to fight for third place at the end. So he needed a good break.
"But he's recovered well, done a spell at altitude in Val d'Isere before coming here. There's an unknown factor in all this, which is the two Grand Tours in the same year, but I think he's got the maturity now to be able to handle that calmly and recover well."
Lavenu also pointed out that Bardet is not the only rider with GC ambitions in AG2R La Mondiale. Domenico Pozzovivo, too, has so far been all but off most fans' radar when it comes to the 2017 Vuelta overall classification, but the Italian climber will also be on the look out for a top result in Spain. Sixth in the Tour de Pologne, fourth in the Tour de Suisse and sixth in the Giro d'Italia this year, Pozzovivo has been very consistent in 2017 and he will be hoping to continue that trend into the Vuelta, where his best placing overall to date in two participations was sixth in 2013.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, 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. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.