Every time the television cameras focused in on Romain Bardet and the commentators mentioned his name, roars of support erupted from the crowds gathered on the Plateau de Solaison for the final stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
The hopes and affection of the home nation were of course stoked by his second place at last year's Tour de France and, after a shaky start to 2017, Bardet steadied the ship in the past week. Though, he acknowledged he has left himself with plenty to do if he's to repeat the podium feat.
It was a shaky start to the Dauphiné, too, as the AG2R La Mondiale rider shipped time in the 23.5km stage 4 time trial. However, he found his legs in the mountains, gaining time with a long-range attack on Alpe d'Huez. Hoping for more of the same on the final stage, he rolled with the punches throughout an incredibly aggressive and dramatic day of racing, crossing the line sixth to cement his sixth place overall.
"It was a great stage. There was nowhere for anyone to hide. We all gave 100 per cent. I'm happy to have raced this stage full gas, in the moment. It was a great bike race to be a part of," Bardet told reporters after riding back down the mountain he'd just scaled.
"These short mountain stages are incredibly intense to race. At the end of the day, we're human; we couldn't race like that 21 days in a row, I assure you. But I think that they add dynamism."
Bardet was part of a key move on the Col de la Colombière that left Richie Porte isolated and off the back. After Dan Martin and Jakob Fuglsang went clear on the final climb, he put in a couple of digs, riding away from Froome and Contador but losing a big of ground late on Louis Meintjes and Emmanuel Buchmnann.
"It was truly a battle between the leaders," said Bardet, who explained his momentum was disrupted by cramps in the final couple of kilometres.
"I tried to make things happen at certain moments and maybe I paid for that deficit a bit in the finale. We saw that a rider like Meintjes, who hadn't made an effort all day, was able to take advantage at the end. It was a gamble, like Valverde did, who I think was very strong today. But when you put everything out there at a given moment, the level is so homogeneous that you pay for it later."
The supposed homogeneity is something Bardet has referred to before, most notably when playing down his achievement at last year's Tour – probably a tactic to dampen the sudden surge in expectation that went with it. Opportunism, he explained, had allowed him to crack the podium, but on a purely physical level, there was little to choose between those behind Chris Froome on GC.
"It's always tight," he said, predicting a similar situation at the Tour next month. "Last year between the first six or seven it was tight, too. That's fine. We know that when everyone is at 100 per cent, the differences are often made through race strategy or intuition, more so than legs. And the spectacle is all the better for it."
Bardet won't be part of any more spectacles before Tour de France, as the Dauphiné was his last race ahead of the Dusseldorf Grand Départ on July 1. It was also his first race back after nearly a month and a half away, the first race of what he has described as a 'new season'.
"I'm happy to be where I am. I was in my right place today. I'm not at 100 per cent – I know I've still got a fair bit of work to do to improve the condition a bit more," said Bardet, assessing his Tour de France build-up.
"Now it's time for some rest. I'll do some recons in the Alps and take the time to debrief the Dauphiné to see a bit where I can progress because there is still a margin for improvement to look for."
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