On Friday, we wrote about AG2R La Mondiale's Romain Bardet, suggesting he was sliding into irrelevance at this Tour de France. Fellow Frenchmen Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) had commandeered the spotlight, and Bardet was left in the shadows. On the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday, the image couldn't have been more stark.
Bardet reached the summit of the iconic mountain in a pitiful state, his Tour de France – already heavily cracked – shattered into a thousand shards.
Pinot had crossed the line some 20 minutes earlier, raising his arms as the winner of the stage. Alaphilippe had followed a handful of seconds later, the yellow jersey secure on his shoulders. As Bardet hauled his weary body up the final few metres and over the line, the pair were already arm-in-arm with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, being held up as the poster boys of this dreamy Tour de France.
"They are two terrific riders," Macron said enthusiastically. "May the best man win, and may the two continue to honour the country as they did today, to inspire people young and old."
As if to rub it in, he added: "I know, in any case, that it will be one of the two of them who arrives in Paris in first place."
In this tale of two Frenchmen, Bardet was the forgotten man.
That rider arriving in Paris in first place was supposed to be him. Although Pinot finished on the podium in 2014, Bardet emerged as the darling of French cycling with his podiums in 2016 and 2017. With Bernard Hinault the last home winner of the Tour all the way back in 1985, he was France's next great hope. What's more, his attacking, instinctive brand of racing appealed to a nation grown weary of Team Sky dominance.
However, Bardet was subdued at last year's Tour and, although he caught the eye elsewhere, by the end of the year there was a general recalibration of his prospects. His status as 'Tour winner in waiting' was suddenly in doubt.
This year, having already leaked time at La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 6, and in Friday's time trial, he fell apart in spectacular fashion on the first true high-mountain endeavour. It wasn't even the Tourmalet, one of the Tour's most revered climbs, that did for him; he was already dropped on the Col du Soulor, the first ascent of the day, with some 60km to go.
The rest of the afternoon was, simply, an ordeal. Earpiece long ripped out, he eventually crawled across the line with his teammates, who'd loyally stuck by his side – one ray of light on a dark, dark day. He didn't speak to the media, but later posted a photo of his teammates comforting him beyond the line. Alongside it, he wrote: "A wandering shadow. Nightmarish that I've been lagging behind with each pedal stroke for two weeks now.
"To realise and admit that I'm not at all in the game is a true affliction. It's not the time to study the reasons; another race starts now, and if the legs can't take me to where I ought to be, then I hope the morale will compensate.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart to my teammates and the whole AG2R La Mondiale team, who support me in these difficult moments. And to you on the roads, who are passionate about French cycling, always giving me the strength to hope."
Lavenu: We need to work out what happened
Back at the AG2R La Mondiale bus, team manager Vincent Lavenu put on a brave face.
"That's sport. You put everything in, but sometimes it doesn't work out. We've had some great Tours in recent years, with a couple of podiums and top 10s. This is just not our year," he said.
As for a reason for the collapse, he didn't have one.
"The latest developments were hardly reassuring. He didn't feel good, physically, in the time trial, so I think that played on his mind a bit. He didn't sleep well, either. But nothing could have led us to believe something like today would happen," Lavenu said.
"We have to analyse things in the cold light of day, with Romain and everyone at the team. We need to work out what happened. Does the programme need to be looked at? Do his training methods need to be looked at? All those things, we need to examine objectively."
That's a job for another time. For now, there are still seven days to go until Paris. At the rate he's going, and with the unforgiving terrain ahead, they could seem interminable.
Lavenu admitted that, when he saw Bardet dropped on the Soulor, he wondered if he might not finish the stage at all, although he stressed the importance of seeing it through to Paris.
"I don't know – I hope not," he said when asked if he thought Bardet might abandon. "A leader relies on his teammates, in the good moments and the bad, and they all waited for him today. I think he owes it to them to carry on.
"We can't lay down arms like that. In elite sport, athletes, at one moment or another, encounter failure. It's part of the history of champions. When things are going well, it's easy. It's in the moments of difficulty that you see the true character.
"Romain is a strong character, so I think he'll be able to fight to the end, for his teammates and our sponsors, because I think we need to get to Paris, even if it's not in the place we wanted."
The pieces could take a long time to pick up. Right now, Alaphilippe and Pinot are electrifying a nation, and Bardet just seems so far away – from them, from the minds of the French, from himself, from everything.
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