Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) lines out as the de facto favourite for overall victory at this week's Tour of Oman, but when he met with reporters in Muscat on Monday afternoon, he scarcely broached the impending race. When a man finishes second overall at the Tour de France, July seems to bleed its way into every month of the year.
The Tour of Oman will be Bardet's first race of the new campaign, added to his programme following the cancellation of La Mediterranéenne, and after placing second to Vincenzo Nibali here a year ago, it would be no surprise if the Frenchman were to go one step further this time around.
Making the same progression at the Tour, however, would require a rather greater leap from Bardet given the startling dominance evinced by Chris Froome and Team Sky in 2016. In a race where the resistance of Froome's rivals was broken long before Paris, second place overall was Bardet's just reward for a daring attack on the road to Saint Gervais in the final week. He acknowledged afterwards that there was precious little to separate the men who placed from second to fifth in the general standings by physical strength. Despite talk in France of Bernard Hinault, 1985 and all that, Bardet knows that he could exceed his form of 2016 and yet fail to repeat his podium finish.
"I'm not thinking about results, I'm thinking about performance and physical capabilities," Bardet said. "I just have to do my best and show up in the best shape possible. Maybe I'll be able to place on the podium again or in the top five. Maybe I will go for the mountains jersey. I don't know. A lot of things can happen in the Tour, and you don't have to only be focused on one goal."
On occasion during the past two Tours, Froome and his Sky team gave the unnerving impression that they were competing in a race all of their own. Even if the Briton cannot be defeated à la pédale, Bardet takes heart from the idea that a dash of invention might yet thwart his designs on a fourth Tour win in five years.
"Chris Froome is certainly the best rider for the stage races, and he has at his side some riders who can be leaders on other teams, so when you have this mix on one team then for sure they are hard to beat," Bardet said. "But you know cycling is a great sport because it's not very predictable, and we can have one or two stages that can be dangerous in the Tour and make things turn around. That's what I hope because we all know that if Froome goes to the finish with his teammates, and have the race just on the last uphill finish, then he's hard to beat."
Team Sky have struggled over the years to impose quite the same order at the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a España as they have done at the Tour, and Bardet pointed to one particular instance of how the team's usual numerical advantage was deleted from the equation.
"Maybe we can try to do a mix like Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador did in the Vuelta last year on the stage to Formigal," Bardet said. "Or we can go on the downhill like last year in the Tour de France. We can make some things happen. Let's try it."
The Giro d'Italia will have to wait
Perhaps with this type of racing in mind, Bardet spent part of the winter mulling over the idea of making his Giro d'Italia debut, like his compatriot Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), but AG2R-La Mondiale was never likely to rubberstamp a programme that risked leaving France's best Tour hope arriving exhausted in July. The corsa rosa will have to wait.
"It was difficult after a very successful year in the Tour just to skip the Tour," Bardet said. "Everyone knows that the Giro is hard because it requires you to race at the top of your form. So for me, it was better to have the same preparation as last year and just focus on the Tour de France."
While La Grande Boucle may define Bardet's calendar, he is keenly aware, like Pinot and others of their generation in France, that there is life beyond the white heat of July. Bardet's love of Liège-Bastogne-Liège has been mostly unrequited but all the more intense for it. Before April, meanwhile, there are opportunities to add to a stage racing palmarès that thus far features only the 2013 Tour de l'Ain.
"It's not just about winning the Tour. It's about being the best I can be," Bardet said. "Maybe it's winning other smaller races. I love cycling all season, so these races in Oman and Tirreno-Adriatico would be perfect too."
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