Throughout the season, AG2R La Mondiale have been confronted with riders crashing out and that clearly didn’t make for a fantastic atmosphere as the French team approached the Grand Départ in Brussels. As a result, the team are aiming to hunt for stage wins rather than focusing solely on the general classification with Bardet.
Bardet has twice finished on the podium of the Tour, placing second in 2016 and third in 2017, but he could only manage sixth overall last year. Once again, he is targeting the general classification, but a stage win is a goal too. The Frenchman won stages in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
"My ambition to get a good placing in GC doesn’t conflict with the ambition to win a stage," Bardet said. "I don’t need all my teammates around me at every moment. It’s our racing style to be near the front and take part in the action of the race. That’s when possibilities are sparked to have a chance to win a stage. It corresponds with my ambitions because when you’re there at key moments, there’s the chance to gain time for the general classification too.
"I want to finish as high up in the GC as possible. I’m used to having the pressure of the French people on my shoulders. It’s been too long since a French rider won the Tour de France when Hinault did it. I’ll do the best I can but it’s good for the French spectators to have several French riders who are in the GC battle."
With the team time trial already coming up on Sunday, Bardet is likely to lose time early on in the general classification. "For us, it’ll be about having fun on the bike in trying to go as fast as possible," Bardet said.
Team manager Vincent Lavenu told Cyclingnews that the team were well aware they would lose ground in the team time trial. "We will likely lose more than a minute, even though the team has improved a lot," he admitted.
Luckily for Bardet, there will be only one more time trial – the 27.2km individual test in Pau on stage 13 – left in the Tour. Bardet lost more than a minute in the time trials at Paris-Nice and the Dauphiné. "He has done really well on the TT bike this season but the quality of the best improved even more," Lavenu said.
Bardet was well aware that the absence of four-time Tour winner Chris Froome and his challenger Tom Dumoulin would not make his task any easier. "Even though a few of the favourites are ruled out of the race, there’s still a dozen riders who can win the Tour de France," Bardet said.
"Obviously, there’s team Ineos with Thomas and Bernal. They will control the race, as they did in the Dauphiné, even though they were without a team leader there. The major challenger is [Jakob] Fuglsang. He was the strongest rider this year. If he goes as strong for three weeks as he did throughout the season, then he’ll be close to the win in Paris. The first major climbs will be a good indication as to how good everybody is. There’s also Yates, Martin, Landa, Kruijswijk… there’s a high density of riders who are all well prepared to fight for the GC. The final week in the Alps will be decisive."
Bardet was pleased to see that race organiser ASO designed a course that suits him perfectly. "Last year was hard with the long stages and the high number of stages that finished in a bunch sprint. It took a long time before we hit the mountains. This year, we already have the first uphill finish after a few days," Bardet said.
"There’s also a high number of climbs that go over 2000 metres. That was a big focus in training. There will be a lot of fatigue in the third week. I did the recon of all the stages in the Alps. It’s the hardest third week ever in the Tour de France."
Teammate Oliver Naesen said that the odds for Bardet were very good. "Only Kruiswijk and Thomas have finished ahead of him in the Tour. The course suits him perfectly. So on paper it looks good for him but then again, the race is contested on asphalt," Naesen said.
The Belgian is pleased to have been handed a free role. "I’m well prepared this year. In the past I raced here because I was good. Now I raced to be good here, doing altitude training," he said.
"Our free role will probably be improvised, having two or three guys with the task to go in the breakaway each day. I’m pleased to see that Romain puts a lot of trust in me. He often asks me for advice, like when to move up, for example. If I say yes, he’ll listen."