After breaking out of the Tour de France cycle, Romain Bardet is finally discovering the Giro d’Italia but, despite being almost at the midpoint of the race, he believes he hasn’t seen the half of it yet.
The Frenchman, making his Giro debut with Team DSM after nine years spent at French team AG2R La Mondiale, is braced for a second week that he believes will showcase the Italian Grand Tour’s true character, and the best of his own.
Bardet reached Tuesday’s rest day 13th overall, 1:21 down on race leader Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers). After a typically-subdued opening time trial, he lost 11 seconds on the first uphill finale at Sestola on stage 4, but then had a more disappointing performance in the first summit finish at San Giacomo on stage 6, finishing 13th of the GC riders.
He steadied the ship by finishing in touch on the uphill gravel finish to stage 9, but argued that the seconds traded in the first week will soon pale into insignificance.
"It's going well. It's a race of discovery for me, and I'm still lacking that bit of experience, but in any case I've done a good first 10 days," Bardet told reporters during a rest day press conference.
"We're halfway through the Giro but the hardest part is still to come. The first 10 days have been tough but it's nothing compared with what awaits us in the second and third weeks.
"Things will soon become much clearer. As I see it, Bernal is the only one who has stood out, but there are only seconds in it and there's still no real hierarchy. The second week will be the decisive phase of this Giro, where things start to take shape. I'm feeling good, I took on the first week in a good disposition, but now I really hope to be at 100 per cent to do my best."
That all-important second week kicks off on Wednesday with a stage that takes the riders over 35 kilometres of gravel roads on the way to Montalcino. The Giro's last visit to the Tuscan sterrato in 2010 was spectacular, and even if Wednesday is forecast to be dry, it's one of the most highly-anticipated stages of the entire race.
It has been referred to as a mini Strade Bianche within a Grand Tour, which is why Bardet, who finished runner-up at the early-season Classic two years ago, is feeling excitement rather than trepidation.
"This is probably the stage where we can see some major gaps between the big contenders, so really looking forward to it," he said.
"Even if I haven't personally seen the route, I think it will be really nice one, with harder climbs than Strade Bianche. It will be a really difficult one. Normally I like riding on these kind of roads, so it should be a good challenge."
After that comes the terrain most readily associated with Bardet - the high mountains. The race scales the fearsome Monte Zoncolan on stage 14, before a taking on three major high-altitude passes on stage 16.
That's where the Frenchman is hoping to shine, and he vowed to race in an adventurous manner – a style that has produced a few stand-out moments in his career, such as his Tour de France podium in 2016. He has already shown a little of that aggression at this Giro, attacking on a wet descent with Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-Nippo) on stage 6, even if it came to nothing in the end.
"That day I lost 30 seconds at the finish, so it wasn't the wisest move, but for sure I want to race offensively," he said. "There will be big mountain days, with climbs above 2000 metres, where the leaders will be isolated, and where I want to race aggressively."
That's despite him appearing to now be the sole leader at Team DSM. Jai Hindley started out as co-leader and perhaps shouldered more of the responsibility given he was runner-up last year, but the Australian is already four and a half minutes down.
"The plan remains the same," Bardet insisted. "We are both still there on GC, and both getting better day by day, so we still have two cards to play."
As for what he's learned so far on his Giro debut, he acknowledged it's a different beast to the Tour, but underlined his point that, despite being half-way through, the race is only just about to get going.
"Everyone prepares 100 per cent, whether it's for the Tour or the Giro, so the level is really high, but the route and the roads in Italy make for a bit more uncertainty. The climbs are more fearsome, the weather is worse, and there are more pitfalls dotted throughout the stages. It's a very different race, but we've seen nothing of this Giro yet."
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