It was a day of mixed emotions for Ag2r-La Mondiale in the final time trial of the Tour de France. While the veteran Jean-Christophe Péraud survived a puncture to seal a spot on the podium, a similar incident late on cost his young teammate Romain Bardet a place in the top five overall.
Bardet began the day just 2:07 clear of Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and given their respective pedigrees against the watch, he seemed destined to lose his fifth place overall in the 54-kilometre test.
After 19 kilometres, Bardet had already conceded almost a minute of his buffer, and at the second time check after 34 kilometres, his hold on provisional fifth place was down to just 20 seconds.
When the youngster suffered a puncture in the final ten kilometres, his hopes seemed to have been extinguished, but remarkably, Bardet entered the finishing straight still in contention. After a sprint that seemed to last an eternity, however, the clock rendered its dispassionate verdict - by just two meagre seconds, Bardet had lost fifth place to van Garderen.
On crossing the line, Bardet wheeled straight to his soigneur, who broke the news to him. After first asking for an update on Péraud's progress, the disconsolate Bardet placed his bike on the roadside and walked towards the team camper van, signalling that he was not ready to talk to the reporters who had gathered around him.
Twenty minutes later, after a tearful Péraud had joined him aboard the camper van, Bardet emerged to give his account of the afternoon's events. A broken radio earpiece meant that he had ridden most of the 54 kilometres without any time checks.
"I had no information on how I was going because after two kilometres, the radio stopped working. My computer stopped too, so I had no information," Bardet said. "Three weeks of effort ruined by a puncture. Losing a top five place in a grand tour by just two seconds, is maddening, especially because of a puncture."
Bardet has a penchant for self-criticism, and as at Hautacam on Thursday, his manager Vincent Lavenu took it upon himself to lift his spirits after the finish. After some cajoling, Bardet was willing to look at the positives of his performance.
"I wasn't far away and it was my first time trial of more than 50 kilometres. People thought I would be more than 10 minutes down, but in the end, I've finished this Tour de France well," Bardet said. "Without my puncture, I think I would have been fifth overall so for my second Tour de France, maybe that's not bad. And the main thing is that Jean-Christophe has finished second."
Péraud and Thibaut Pinot's second and third places marks the first time that France has had two riders on the podium in Paris since 1984, when Laurent Fignon preceded Bernard Hinault.
Along with Pinot, Bardet is the symbol of the future of French cycling. While the 23-year-old has impressed in his brief professional career by shining on all terrains, and not just in the white heat of July, Bardet hinted that he might rethink his racing programme for 2015 in a bid to be fresher for the Tour.
"If I want to get on the podium, maybe I'll have to prioritise the Tour," he said. "I've finished 10th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège already this year, whereas other riders are specialising more than me."
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