Oliver Naesen is one of the straightest talkers in the professional peloton. "When I say I'm feeling good, I really mean I'm feeling good," said the Belgian at the end of stage 6 of the Critérium du Dauphiné, a day that was tinged with regret.
The problem? He was in the breakaway but, with 50 kilometres to go, his AG2R La Mondiale rode hard on the front of the peloton ahead of the all-important Mont du Chat. They were working to tee up Romain Bardet for the hors-categorie ascent and white-knuckle descent to the finish, even if it meant that Naesen's lead was slashed.
The Belgian understood the rationale but clearly felt he was in a strong position to win the stage. As the last man standing from the break, caught by the GC riders just over a kilometre from the top of the climb, he probably had a point.
"It's easy to say so afterwards, but yes, I have regrets – the team do as well I think," Naesen told L'Equipe. "With a champion like Romain Bardet it's natural that his card is played. I'm not a climber so it wasn't me who was the leader for this stage. But when I say I'm feeling good, I really mean I'm feeling good.
"I understand that on a stage like that it's not easy to have confidence in a Classics rider when you have Bardet and [Pierre] Latour in the team. That's the decision, it's just a shame. I'm still new in the team, and maybe they don't yet know what it means when I say I'm feeling strong. When I say I'm feeling strong it means it's for the win."
Bardet and Naesen are sharing rooms together at the Dauphiné, and there will surely be discussions tonight, even if there's no suggestion that Naesen's regret spilled over into anger.
"We need to talk about it and we'll have a debrief this evening to see if it was the right call," acknowledged Bardet in front of a media scrum outside the team bus in La Motte-Servolex.
"Oliver is very very strong but not necessarily the best climber in the team. At a certain moment you have to make a decision. I think it's important to put these kind of actions into motion if we hope to do so at the Tour de France."
Logic suggested this would be an ideal stage for Bardet, a pure climber and one of the best descenders in the peloton, and also the rider who knew the Mont du Chat and its descent best of all, with his team based in La Motte-Servolex.
"We played the card of Romain 100 per cent, which was logical," said AG2R directeur sportif, Julien Jurdie. "You cannot rewrite history. Clearly, if we didn't ride there's a good chance he [Naesen] could've won the stage – that's for sure. But there you go, that was the strategy, and we don't have any regrets over it. Romain is a good guy, we listen to our leader and we were very much in agreement with him that we should ride."
'I'm still not 100 per cent'
Question marks remain over the progress of Romain Bardet as he looks to back up his breakthrough Tour de France last year, where he finished runner-up to Chris Froome.
After an underwhelming start to the season, the Frenchman took a month off racing and re-set himself with a two-week altitude camp in Sierra Nevada. There was plenty to prove on his return to the Dauphiné but it didn't start well as he shipped 1:53 to Richie Porte in the time trial. Bardet asked for patience, with his favoured terrain of the mountains only appearing late in the race in the form of three intense back-to-back stages.
He reacted well for much of the climb but seemed to suffer when he tried to follow an acceleration from Fabio Aru, eventually dropping back with Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador as Porte and Froome linked up with Aru and his teammate Fuglsang up the road. He arrived 50 seconds back and now finds himself ninth overall at 2:39.
"On the climb, I still wasn't at 100 per cent – there's still a little something lacking," Bardet said, dissecting his day as he warmed down on the rollers.
"Coming in cold to a single climb is not what suits me best, but I gave the maximum in any case, and I'm happy with my effort and how the legs responded. I feel the form is getting better and better with each day and I'm looking forward to Saturday and Sunday.
"Now I have to take up arms – and that's the way I like to race."
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