The Côte de Domancy may be dwarfed by nearby Mont Blanc, but for some, the road out of Sallanches will always represent a particular high point in the history of French cycling. It was here in 1980 that Bernard Hinault didn't so much win the World Championships as conquer them, providing the signature moment of the nation's last era of dominance.
The Tour de France organisation's decision to include the Côte de Domancy as part of Thursday's stage 18 time trial to Megève was mainly a way to honour Hinault, who retires from official duties with ASO this year, but also something of a clarion call to riders from the home nation.
Thirty-one years have now passed since Hinault became the last French winner of the Tour, and while that drought will undoubtedly continue for another year – at least – Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) remains in the hunt for a place on the podium in Paris after an assured performance in a land consecrated by Le Blaireau.
- Tour de France: Froome wins mountain time trial to Megève
- Tour de France: Stage 18 finish line quotes
Bardet placed fifth in Megève, 42 seconds behind winner Chris Froome (Sky), to maintain his fifth position in the overall standings, but he moves to within 20 seconds of fourth-placed Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and is just 41 seconds off a place on the podium with two tough days in the Alps still to come.
"The objective is to move up," Bardet said after warming down past the finish line. "I've taken time to say it, but now, it's all for the podium."
Bardet doled out his effort carefully over the 17-kilometre course, mindful not to over-extend himself on the steep slopes of the Côte de Domancy early in the test. He was 11th after 6.5 kilometres, and then up to fifth by the 10-kilometre point, a position he maintained all the way to the finish line.
Not for the first time at this Tour, Bardet had reached the finish in a state of near exhaustion. Ushered into the tent where UCI inspectors performed a check on his bike, he had to sit on the ground to compose himself for a few minutes before he could even countenance climbing aboard the turbo trainer to warm down.
Bardet was still wearing his time trial helmet when he began gingerly pedalling a short time later, as though he could hardly summon the strength to take it off, but he broke into a smile as he spoke quietly of his performance with manager Vincent Lavenu and directeur sportif Julien Jurdie.
"I really like this kind of course, it was quite similar to going up a mountain pass," Bardet said later of the time trial, which climbed in instalments out of Sallanches before a short drop over the Côte des Chozeaux to the finish in Megève.
"I managed it like it was a straight climb of 30 minutes. I was supported by the public like never before, all along the parcours. I had goose-bumps, it was really like being in a rugby stadium. I just tried not to put myself in the red, and I'm satisfied with my time and my sensations."
After placing 15th on his Tour debut in 2013, Bardet claimed sixth in 2014, and though he endured a troubled opening half to last year's race, he finished with a flourish by landing a stage win in Pra Loup and moving up to ninth place in the final week.
A podium finish at the Critérium du Dauphiné raised hopes before the Tour, and while Bardet has never been in a position to threaten Chris Froome or his Sky guard, he has been a consistent performer thus far, and will look with some optimism to the coming stages to Saint-Gervais and Morzine.
"It's really going to come down to a matter of seconds in these last two days. We're all very close," said Bardet, who has Bauke Mollema (second at 3:52) and Adam Yates (third at 4:16) in his sights.
"I'll need to be offensive, and give everything because there are two days left and I don't want regrets on Sunday in Paris. I'm not a threat to Froome but I am to the riders in second and third and there will be a race between us. It will be a good battle."
Bardet is aware, too, that he is the sole bearer of home hopes in the absence of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), and at the end of a Tour that risks ending without a single French stage winner, a first since 1999. "People are expecting a lot from us French riders. They should know that I'm doing my best, and fighting," Bardet said. "Sometimes they hope for a more spectacular race, but we're doing the maximum."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.