Bardet is back. Stage 19 of the 2016 Tour de France was beginning to feel like a distant memory, but the expectations that Romain Bardet (Ag2r) raised that day – both in terms of his results and his style of racing – were met on the penultimate stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Since that coming-of-age victory in Saint-Gervais last July, which yielded a podium at the Tour, the Frenchman hadn't really sprang into life in the same way, and an underwhelming first half of the 2017 season led to question marks that carried into the Dauphiné and all the way through the time trial and first mountain stage.
But while Bardet's name was widely whispered in connection with that first day in the mountains, containing as it did a climb and a descent to the finish in an area he knows well, it was the second one, on Alpe d'Huez on Saturday, that saw him spread his wings once again.
Lying ninth overall, he was the first to kick off hostilities in the GC group, and rolled the dice some 17km from the line.
"BMC were sending us to sleep," Bardet said of race leader Richie Porte's team's grip on proceedings.
"I said to myself, 'There's plenty of time to get an advantage – I'll go, and we'll see.' I'm not here to defend my ninth place. It was a case of laying it all on the line, and even if I blew up, at least there'd be no regrets Sunday evening."
Bardet quickly opened up a sizeable lead over his rivals and soon linked up with Alexis Vuillermoz over the top of the Col de Sarenne, with his teammate delivering him through the intermediate section and dropping him off for the short final hike to Alpe d'Huez. Fading slightly in the last kilometre, Bardet finished 40 seconds ahead of Porte, and over a minute ahead of the other GC candidates.
"It's true that Richie was anaesthetizing the race a little bit, and there were very few guys with attacking inclinations. It's a shame – with allies, it could have been a very good situation."
In any case, Bardet was rewarded with a jump from ninth to six overall, and is now 2:07 down on Porte and within a minute of the podium.
But, not content with ninth, neither will he settle for sixth, and he promised to roll the dice once more on Sunday's final stage, which packs four major climbs – one of them the summit finish – into 115 kilometres.
"That really is the Alpine stage par excellence, with a string of climbs," he said. "I hope they'll make the difference. Guys like Contador like to go long. I hope that makes for a good spectacle.
"The objective for me is to move up the GC as far as possible. It won't be easy because everyone wants to conserve their position. But will not content myself with sixth place – I'll keep on attacking."
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