When Romain Bardet took out his earpiece and started to make his way sorrily up the Col du Tourmalet last weekend, AG2R La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu feared his star rider's Tour de France might end there. Five days on, the Frenchman has found new meaning in the race, infiltrating another breakaway on stage 18 on Thursday to take the polka-dot jersey.
Bardet was in a sorry state five days ago. He described his Tourmalet meltdown – in which he lost 20 minutes and any hope of finishing on the podium again – as "torment", and spoke of a need to "reinvent" himself.
The big, soul-searching questions will come in the off-season but, within this Tour, Bardet has already reinvented himself. With the general classification no longer on the agenda, he has taken the opportunity to get into breaks on the two mountain stages that have followed the Tourmalet.
A first day out in Foix – the day after the Tourmalet – netted mountains points if not an opportunity for a stage win, and the first outing in the Alps on Thursday netted both. Bardet consistently made the selections over the big cols, but was unable to match Nairo Quintana's attack on the final climb and had to settle for second place in Valloire. There was, however, consolation in that, by being second over the Col de Vars, the Col d'Izoard and the Col du Galibier, Bardet overhauled Tim Wellens to take the lead in the mountains classification.
"It was the objective of the day for me. Of course, there was the stage win, also, but this jersey really motivated me, and is also a way to save my Tour," Bardet told reporters in Valloire.
"It has put a smile back on my face, and that's important. It's clear that the legs aren't where they should be, but I'm fighting and I'm telling myself that I've got two more days to do that. It does me good that it's paying off a bit, and it does me good simply to have a smile on my face at the finish, because it's been a while since that was the case."
Bardet went on to make some intriguing comments about breakaways, suggesting they could form part of his future as a rider. He has always seen himself as a Grand Tour GC rider, but he places a high value on instinctive, uncalculating, offensive racing. His podium finishes at the 2016 and 2017 Tours marked him out as a potential Grand Tour champion, but he has taken backwards steps in the past couple of years, and his best performances have arguably come in one-day races.
"I'm gaining an appreciation for another side of things. I take pleasure in being at the front of the race, rediscovering attacking racing," Bardet said. "It's not any easier – far from it. I'm not used to doing starts like that, where you're going flat-out for an hour-and-a-half. You can't miss the break, so you spend a lot of energy.
"At 28, it's a new discovery for me. Maybe it's a crossroads I needed in my career, to see what I should really be doing."