It's rare that one of the five "monumental" Classics throws up a surprise winner – although there can be disappointments – but there are always "performances" that catch the eye in the Classics. A combination of training, enthusiasm, opportunism and the proverbial day of 'grace' can throw up the odd unexpected name doing unexpected things.
There would have been precisely zero people who would have put 21-year-old French new professional Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) close to the front group in the Amstel Gold Race, far less finishing in the top 30 (at a mere 30 seconds from the winner, Astana's Enrico Gasparotto). And more impressive still was the fact that the youngster had been in the early break, then stayed clear with fellow "neo" pro Alex Howes of Garmin Barracuda until he was finally caught, the last man standing, after 208km off the front. That would have been good enough in itself, but it was also the longest race of his pro racing career which kicked off at the Grand Prix La Marseillaise at the end of January.
That he still had the legs to go with the leading group and stay with them until the final sort-out on the Cauberg deserves some kind of recognition.
But, according to French journalist Jean-Luc Gatellier of L'Equipe, he's not quite come out of nowhere. "He was one of the best amateurs in the French national team last year, he won a stage in the Tour de l'Avenir and finished 12th overall and be won the points jersey, so he's not a total unknown."
Nevertheless, to have ridden so well in his first Ardennes Classic was impressive stuff. After the race Bardet said, "I surprised myself a little, because I had never raced over that distance, but I felt really good and I never really felt like I was really pushing myself too hard."
But not only did he drop Howes on the penultimate climb of the Amstel to lead the race in the finale, he had the nerve to stay with the leading group which would go on to fight out the win until the final climb to the line. Whether Bardet's Amstel Gold effort was a flash in the pan or the first demonstration of a real talent should be clearer at the finish of the Flèche Wallonne. After John Gadret, it looks like AG2R boss Vincent Lavenu has found another climbing talent. How far Bardet can climb remains to be seen.
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