As if the public fervour and expectation surrounding Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) at the Tour de France wasn't intense enough, French President Emmanuel Macron jumped into Christian Prudhomme's car to follow the race over the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier on Wednesday, and proclaimed proudly at the finish in Serre Chevalier that "we expect a lot in the next few days from Romain Bardet".
It has become something of a tradition for the president to attend the race at some point, and Macron, elected in May, watched on as Bardet sought to reduce the 23-second deficit to Chris Froome, and the five seconds to second-placed Fabio Aru, on the first of two crucial back-to-back stages in the Alps in the final week.
In the end, the outcome was mixed. Bardet attacked repeatedly towards the top of the Galibier, and Aru, having yo-yoed off the back of the group, was distanced over the top and lost 31 seconds by the time he reached the finish. However, as the yellow jersey group sprinted behind solo winner Primoz Roglic, fourth-placed Rigoberto Urán snaffled six bonus seconds and Froome took four, leaving Bardet 27 seconds back on Froome and still in third place, now tied on time with second-placed Urán.
As he struggled to work out if the glass was half full or half empty, Bardet took pride in the way he had ridden. The only bona fide yellow jersey contender to attack, he was, fittingly enough, true to the name of Macron's political party, En Marche – On The Move.
"I animated the race and I gave it everything to try and take the yellow jersey today. I have no regrets," said Bardet in Serre Chevalier. "I've been faithful to my philosophy since the start of the Tour, attacking and trying to make things happen. That's the way I like to ride. It doesn't always pay off, but I've got no regrets because I tried everything.
"Each time I attacked I tried to give it my best, and it wasn't far from breaking up several times. But with a 25km descent into a headwind, it was always going to be a difficult task to take time on Froome, who was still well supported. I have no regrets because I gave everything I had until the line."
Bardet has his way of riding but it's not shared by everyone, and the subtext was fairly clear when he was asked about Urán.
"Urán didn't attack today," he said. "He's happy to follow and then go for the bonuses at the finish."
As someone who's usually keen to play down expectation, Bardet surely appreciated Macron's presence but perhaps not his hyping of the Frenchman's chances. The president, speaking on national television, explained that his most vivid memory of the Tour de France was Greg LeMond's famous last-gasp victory over Laurent Fignon in 1989, the American having started the day 50 seconds in arrears.
"Voila, Romain can wipe out those 27 seconds between now and Sunday," he said confidently.
The problem is that he may have forgotten about the penultimate-day time trial in Marseille, where Bardet is likely to ship more time to Froome. Having lost 39 seconds to the three-time champion on a shorter course on the opening stage, he would need to take more like a minute and a half on tomorrow's all-important summit finish on the Col d'Izoard.
"It's true that Urán did a better operation than me today in terms of time, but the race isn't over. There's still the Izoard and then the time trial. I hope to be just as strong as today," said Bardet.
He was then asked whether he believes Froome is beatable.
"I don't know," came the reply. "Today he was the one responding to the attacks. We just have to keep trying."
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