Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) is one of the riders for whom the first week of the Tour de France is chiefly an exercise in survival before the mountains offer up opportunities the second half the race. However, on the first and only real sighting of a hill this side of the first rest day, the great French hope suffered a significant setback, losing half a minute on the Mur de Bretagne.
Bardet's troubles weren't overtly a case of bad legs – though some question marks will linger – but rather of bad luck. Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) ran into Bardet's rear wheel on the approach to the two-kilometre final climb, with both riders suffering broken wheels, and the Frenchman had to complete the stage on a teammate's bike.
Unlike Dumoulin, Bardet made it back to the peloton, only to drop off the back of the group when the attacks came with just under a kilometre of the ascent remaining. He crossed the line 31 seconds down on stage winner Dan Martin, and 28 down on most of his yellow jersey rivals.
Bardet turned around at the top of the Mur and rode straight back down to his team bus, ignoring the eager French media mob to get straight in the shower. He later issued a short statement via his team.
"I was the victim of a collision with Tom Dumoulin less than five kilometres from the line. That broke my rear wheel and I was unable to continue on my bike. Tony Gallopin gave me his bike with three kilometres to go, and I tried to get back into the peloton, but I paid for those efforts in the end," he said.
"It's never good to lose time, but there are plenty more stages left, and the mountains that are coming, to take it back."
Having to go into the red in advance of a climb like the Mur de Bretagne is certainly far from ideal, but the way Bardet fell away and lost half a minute in the space of 700 metres was worrying. AG2R directeur sportif Julien Jurdie explained that Bardet was further hamstrung by having to do the effort on a bike that wasn't his.
"Obviously Romain is very particular when it comes to his position on the bike, so I don't think he was able to take on the climb as he needed to. The sensations in that final sprint were complicated for him. On an intense climb like that, on someone else's bike, having made a big effort to get back in…
"We preferred not to stop to give him a new bike from the car – we'd only have lost more time. We saw that with Tom Dumoulin, who had to change his wheel. It was complicated, so the solution to grab Tony's bike was the best one, but despite that it was tough and Romain has lost time."
There were contrasting emotions in the AG2R car. Just after Bardet began to slip away, Pierre Latour burst out from the very front of the thinning bunch. The 24-year-old Frenchman produced a powerful acceleration to cruise clear of the group of favourites but Dan Martin was already out in front with enough of an advantage to deny him a first Tour de France stage win.
Latour raised his arm high and bashed it down on his handlebars in frustration, later revealing he had no idea Bardet was dropped.
"We said that if we were in a good place on today's stage we would try and win the stage – that was if Romain didn't have any problems," Latour said. "At the beginning of the climb there weren't any problems, so I pushed hard. When I was fighting with Richie Porte, the wind gusted in from the right and it meant that I just missed the point of attack, which wasn't great. I didn't actually know about that [Bardet's problem], nobody told me. I don't think there was anything I could have done. We'll try to fight to get it back."
Jurdie explained that Alexis Vuillermoz, who was victorious the last time a Tour stage finished on the Mur de Bretagne, in 2015, was sent back to pace Bardet to the finish, but Latour was told to stick to the plan and go for the stage.
"You have to make decisions at the right time. We needed Pierre to attack, and we needed to get Romain back to the peloton. We let Pierre do his own race, and we had Alexis who went back to Romain," Jurdie said.
"With Pierre, it was already decided in the timing, that he would attack with 800 metres to go. In the end he hesitated a bit, but he wasn't far off Dan Martin. It's a nice second place but there was some frustration there on the line."
AG2R lost ground in the stage 3 team time trial, but other than that things had been going smoothly, with Bardet avoiding the chaos that had cost many of his rivals. The bad luck at this Tour de France, however, seems to be rounding on everyone, and AG2R were left to preach a familiar message.
"It's never nice to lose time due to a mechanical problem," said Jurdie. "31 seconds is far from ideal but there are 15 days left and lots to do."
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