The Giro d’Italia had just left the Riviera and begun to climb steadily towards Pieve di Teco when Romain Bardet drifted towards the rear of the peloton. A couple of kilometres later, he braked unsteadily to a halt and lay down gingerly on the roadside. Minutes later, the race radio crackled into life with news of his abandon. So it goes.
Bardet began the day in fourth place overall, just 14 seconds off the maglia rosa Juan Pedro López (Trek-Segafredo), and seemingly clutching the chance of a lifetime to inscribe a Grand Tour on his palmarès. Now illness had prised that opportunity from his grasp.
Word of Bardet’s departure spread slowly through the peloton. His compatriot Arnaud Démare, for instance, only realised what had happened when Bardet’s DSM team joined his own Groupama-FDJ squad in trying to tee up a sprint for Alberto Dainese at the finish of stage 13 in Cuneo. Until he sat down for his post-stage press conference, meanwhile, the race leader López was under the impression that Bardet had crashed out.
Within the DSM team, however, Bardet’s illness had been of concern since the opening kilometres of stage 12 and his abandon appeared increasingly imminent after a sleepless night on Thursday. Bardet’s determination to try brought him to the start line in Sanremo, but resilience alone can only carry a man so far. Running on empty, the Frenchman had little option but to withdraw barely 35km into stage 13.
“It’s a real shame,” Directeur Sportif Matt Winston said in Cuneo. “In yesterday’s stage, Romain started to be sick after about 10km. We sort of carried him through the stage yesterday, looked after him as best as possible. But last night he didn’t get any better. He couldn’t eat yesterday evening and he couldn’t sleep most of the night with illness.
“We were already a little bit in doubt this morning about how it would go and whether he would be able to start today. We gave it a go. It just wasn’t possible, and Romain just wasn’t in physically good enough shape to continue.”
After rising to his feet, Bardet was helped into the passenger seat of a DSM team car, but his suffering didn’t end there. He would spend the first half of the stage chugging along behind the race he had been striving to win for the past two weeks, while television motorbikes dropped back through the convoy to capture his anguish for an international audience.
Winston confirmed afterwards that Bardet had been afflicted by stomach problems rather than sunstroke. Various viruses swept through the peloton this spring, leaving several team rosters depleted during the Spring Classics, but Winston added that Bardet was the only rider at DSM to have fallen ill.
“Everybody is OK, everybody is healthy. We don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s sickness and diarrhoea,” said Winston. “It’s a bug that’s taken him out, but I’ll wait for the full doctor’s report.”
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Bardet finished on the podium of the Tour de France in both 2016 and 2017, but he slipped further away from the grand prize in the years that followed. In 2021, after departing AG2R for DSM, he chose to forgo the Tour in favour of the Giro, and he sparkled intermittently on his debut to finish seventh overall in Milan.
Twelve months on, Bardet looked altogether more assured on Italian roads. Victory at the Tour of the Alps last month highlighted his credentials before the Giro got underway, and he had scarcely missed a beat since the race left Budapest. On the Blockhaus last weekend, Bardet matched Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) and Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) pedal stroke for pedal stroke. Suddenly, he had every reason to believe he might bridge the 33-year gap to Laurent Fignon, the last French winner of the Giro. Instead, the dream was snuffed out just as the race was entering its decisive phase.
Romain Combaud is making his Grand Tour debut on this Giro, and his task on Friday was to nurse and cajole his leader and fellow countryman through the stage. From the opening kilometres, it was already apparent that Bardet’s abandon was an inevitability, even if he fought against the idea for as long as he could.
“Romain stopped in tears,” Combaud said when he reached Cuneo. “My role today was to stay with him. We said we were going to have an easy day and we were hoping he'd get better tonight and that was it. He was brilliant for 12 days so there was no reason to believe he wasn't going to get better and carry on.
“With the heat, it was just too much. He had problems with his stomach. It's a little virus that's going to pass, I'm sure. We promised to do great things for each other at this Giro and I was happy to come here to help him. It hurts, but we'll carry on.”
In the finale on Friday, DSM turned their focus to hunting a stage win through Dainese. The Italian won Tuesday’s sprint in Reggio Emilia, where Bardet himself played a role in his lead-out, but he had to settle for fifth behind Démare here. Thymen Arensman, 11th at 1:27, now carries the team’s overall hopes.
“We still have options. We’ll regather tonight, look at it, and go from there,” said Winston, though it was hard to think past the unfortunate Bardet, who could simply go no further.
“Romain is not stopping the race unless he has to, but he was sick all day on the bike yesterday and still sick this morning. In the end, he just couldn’t continue. It just wasn’t happening.”
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.