After a terrible 18 months, in which he considered walking away from the sport, Warren Barguil declared himself 'back on track' as he claimed the overall lead of the Arctic Race of Norway on Saturday.
The French champion was unable to take stage honours at the summit of the searingly steep Storheia climb, but his second place finish was enough to take him into the yellow-and-orange jersey after Mathieu van der Poel fell away.
Barguil signed for Arkea-Samsic on the back of two stage wins and the mountains classification at the 2017 Tour de France, but the move to his 'native' Brittany team was slow to work out. The complete lack of results and form from 2018 had continued into 2019, but Saturday's result in Norway continued something of a summer turnaround after victory in the French nationals and a top-10 overall finish at the Tour de France.
"It's already a good result after a difficult start to the season. I'm really back on track," Barguil told reporters on top of Storheia.
"Last year was a really hard year for me. I almost stopped cycling. But now I continue to experience these moments, and I'm just happy to be there, in this nice place, and to have this result is great."
It would have been easy to head for a period of downtime after the Tour de France, but Barguil was keen to capitalise on his summer run of form. He made a target of the Arctic Race of Norway and kept his foot on the gas in order to keep his condition almost three weeks on from rolling into Paris.
"I was doubting a little bit because I was feeling good but then I trained maybe a little too much before coming here," Barguil said. It was a balance between keeping the pressure on and trying to recover, and it was a bit mixed with my coach, who said I needed to keep the power on. In the end, it was enough."
The Storheia climb was billed as the 'Norwegian Mont Ventoux', due to the opening section in the trees that opened out onto an exposed, wind-swept mountainside. Unfortunately for Barguil, at 3.5km it was nowhere near as long as the 'Giant of Provence', even if the double-digit gradients and narrow road blew the race to smithereens.
He went on the front foot early, riding away with Alexey Lutsenko in a small group that distanced leader Van der Poel. When Odd Christian Eiking attacked with a few hundred metres to go, on a brutal final stretch that hit 20 per cent, Barguil admitted he may have hesitated a touch too long. He seemed to look around at Lutsenko before committing to a response, but in the end he rode comfortably away from the Kazakh champion. Eiking, though, held firm.
"I was waiting maybe too much but you can always say things afterwards. In the last 100 metres I was coming back, but it wasn't long enough. If the climb was a little longer it could have been better for me," Barguil said.
It wasn't that Barguil was unaware of the threat posed by Eiking. In fact, he'd tipped the Norwegian for glory that morning.
"I knew he was almost much at home, he was very motivated, and I saw his legs and I said 'this guy is in shape'. Nobody in my team agreed. They said 'he can't win, he was not good in the Tour', but I said 'I think he can win'. The climb suited him better than me, and you know when you're at home you have double or triple your power. I knew he would be good, and he was just better than me."
Barguil now leads the race by three seconds over Lutsenko, with Krists Neilands third at 15 seconds. It's a precarious lead going into a final stage that features three laps of a hilly finishing circuit, not least with three intermediate sprints that all carry bonus seconds (3-2-1). Lutsenko has already made use of those on the opening two stages and, even if he can't drop Barguil on the three ascents of the Skistua climb (2.3km at 6.6 per cent), the uphill drag to the line could play into his hands.
"I don't know if it will be enough. With the sprint bonuses, he only needs to win one and we have the same time," said Barguil.
"I'm prepared for a big fight, and not just with Lutsenko, because there are guys behind at around 15 seconds. I just need to be careful tomorrow and have the team around me. It's with tomorrow in mind that we didn't want to pull today, to save maximum energy. I love circuit races, and tomorrow we will need to race intelligently."
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