Even before Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) loosened his grip on the back of the yellow jersey group on the Col du Portet, the arid truth of his Tour de France had already been laid bare. He would not win the race, nor would he match his podium finishes of the past two seasons.
13 kilometres from the summit of the Tour’s most demanding climb, Bardet’s face was drawn, his eyes glazed. It was not a question of whether he would be dropped, but when. Tenacious to a fault, the Frenchman clung on by his fingernails until the thread snapped in the final six kilometres and his race unspooled.
The finish line of the Tour’s final summit finish was shrouded in low cloud, as it had been at Saint-Gervais in 2016. On that occasion, Bardet arrived as the solo stage winner. On the Col du Portet, his was a rather more lonesome kind of solitude, as he crossed the line 13th on the stage, 2:35 behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
The performance saw Bardet drop from fifth to eighth in the overall standings, leaving him 5:13 behind yellow jersey Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) and more than two and a half minutes shy of a podium berth.
“It was a terrible day,” Bardet said forlornly after the finish, wiping his face as he spoke. “I struggled terribly on the last climb, my legs simply weren’t responding. It’s very unfortunate, but that’s the law of sport and you have to accept it. It’s hard, I gave the maximum again today, but it was simply a défaillance. It’s the law of sport, you have to accept it.”
Stage 17 was the shortest road stage of the 2018 Tour, but with three mountain passes crammed into just 65km of racing, it was arguably the toughest. The severity of the final, hors categorie climb meant that the podium contenders held their fire on the opening two ascents, though Bardet did seem to signal his intentions by setting his AG2R La Mondiale team to work on the Col de Val Louron-Azet. Come the lower slopes of the Col du Portet, however, it was clear that something was awry.
“Honestly, I had good legs for all the stage, but I felt I had run out of sugar on the last climb, I had headaches, I just didn’t feel well,” Bardet said. “I couldn’t accelerate. It’s hard to accept, but it’s like that.”
In hindsight, it didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing for Bardet’s Tour even before Wednesday’s stage. A pugnacious display on Alpe d’Huez aside, he seemed to be buffeted by ill winds at every turn, suffering mechanical mishap at Mûr-de-Bretagne and the cobbles of Roubaix, and then conceding ground in uncharacteristic fashion at La Rosière and Mende.
Bardet’s Tour career to this point has followed a broadly upward trajectory. He was 15th on his debut in 2013, sixth in 2014, ninth and a stage winner in 2015, second in 2016 and third last year. Barring a dramatic turnaround on the final day in the Pyrenees, this will be the first major stumble in that progression, and he acknowledged that his hopes of a podium finish had vanished.
“That’s clear, but I repeat, I wasn’t well,” Bardet said. “It’s like that, it’s difficult.”
Lavenu: Bardet is still our leader
A year ago, when Bardet broke even with Chris Froome in the high mountains but lost the Tour in the race’s two short time trials, one wondered if his weakness against the clock would preclude him from ever winning the Tour de France. This time around, his yellow jersey challenge is over even before the race’s lone individual time trial on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas, who had never matched Bardet with any consistency in the high mountains before this season, now looks destined to win the Tour after claiming two summit finish stage wins in the Alps.
“It’s easier to turn a rouleur into a good climber than to transform a climber into a good rouleur. That’s the reality,” AG2R La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu said an hour or so after the finish, as he quietly conducted a post-mortem of sorts with reporters at the rear of the makeshift pressroom.
Bardet’s teammate, the French time trial champion Pierre Latour, extended his lead in the best young rider competition on Wednesday and lies 14th overall. In time, Latour might also come to be billed as a rider capable of ending France’s 33 years and counting without a Tour win, but Lavenu gently stressed that Bardet – who is, lest it be forgotten, still only 27 – is both the present and the future of AG2R La Mondiale.
“Just because Romain Bardet has lost two minutes today, we’re not going to question whether he is our leader, because it’s still Romain Bardet,” Lavenu said. “And next year, we’ll do everything to help Romain get back to doing what he’s being doing up to now.”