Romain Bardet has eased through the first three days of the Critérium du Dauphiné, which he has said marks the start of a "new season" after a disappointing start to his 2016 campaign. But after a trio of stages for the sprinters and breakaway men, where he has basked in the home support of his Auvergne region, things get serious for the AG2R La Mondiale rider on Wednesday with the stage 4 time trial.
And Bardet has plenty to prove against the clock. Far from his natural strength, his one time trial this year on the new Factor Slick bike saw him drop from third to 15th overall on the final day of the Vuelta al País Vasco. He lost 2:10 to fellow Dauphiné contender Alejandro Valverde over 27.7km, just four kilometres longer than Wednesday's test in Isère.
That has been chalked down as a one-off, with suggestions he warmed up too vigorously. In any case, the Frenchman deemed it wise to head out on the Friday before the start of the Dauphiné to recon the course.
"I'm not the best person to ask about courses, but there are no great surprises. There are plenty of false flats, especially downhill, so it's not what I prefer – it's one for the big rouleurs, which is going to create a hierarchy," he said.
"But I've had a good look at it and have done a lot of work on my time trialling since the start of the year."
Bardet concedes he will simply be trying to "limit the losses" and knows that, despite his favoured mountainous terrain coming towards the end of the race, he'll be heading there on the back foot. Chris Froome, Richie Porte, and Alejandro Valverde, for starters, are all expected to go considerably quicker.
When the race does reach the mountains, Bardet will find fertile ground, not least on stage 6, the first in a trio of difficult stages that will decide the general classification. It heads up the Mont du Chat and finishes at the bottom, in what is almost a carbon copy of the finale of stage 9 of the upcoming Tour de France. After his time trial recon on Friday morning, Bardet went over to the climb in the afternoon to check it out as well.
"It's a very tough climb on such a short stage. There are really step gradients – ramps of 10 per cent that never seem to end. It's definitely going to do some damage," he said on France Bleu, also warning that the final-day summit finish will be just as, if not more, decisive.
"I've heard that the plateau de Solaison is really hard. I've got a lot of hope for Sunday – there's a chance to shake up Saturday's GC."
'I'm not scared of being in top shape at the Dauphiné'
Bardet was second at last year's Tour de France but has had an underwhelming season so far, with the País Vasco disappointment accompanied by the shame of being ejected from Paris-Nice for holding onto a team car.
He had top 10s at the Tour of Oman, Volta a Catalunya, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but his trip to Sierra Nevada in May for an altitude camp was seen as a chance to draw a line under the campaign so far and start afresh.
"Everything is going well. Sierra Nevada was an important transitional period," he said at the start of the Dauphiné. "With the Tour de France squad, we laid the foundations for the summer, and we managed to get a lot of good work done.
"A new season begins, and now the racing will be the judge of things."
And Bardet is certainly here to race. While the likes of Alberto Contador have been explicit in describing the Dauphiné as a week of training ahead of the Tour de France, the Frenchman sees it as an important outing in its own right.
"There are riders who are scared of arriving at the Dauphiné in too good a shape. I'm not one of them," he said. "On the contrary, I know that I need to have a good Dauphiné in order to have a good Tour de France afterwards. I'm not necessarily asking to be at 100 per cent at the start of June but I need to sense that the feelings are there. I'm not the only one – look at Chris Froome, who was won the Dauphiné three times and twice gone on to win the Tour. The Dauphiné is a true test."
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