Hailing from Hennebont in the Breton cycling heartland, Warren Barguil would have heard all of the clichés about how the Tour de France is different to other races long before he ever turned professional. Even armed with all that forewarning, after making his debut in 2015, the youngster could offer his own confirmation: all is true.
“It changed me both physically and mentally: the Tour is the toughest race I’ve ever done,” Barguil told Cyclingnews at the Giant-Alpecin team presentation in Berlin on Thursday. “It’s gruelling for three weeks solid, with the pressure of the media and all the public around it, and the speed of the race. It’s completely from other races, even from other Grand Tours.”
Lying in the top ten overall as the Tour entered its final week, Barguil grew accustomed to providing a daily debrief to the home press as he warmed down on the rollers after each stage. The youngster would learn quickly that the fall-out of every act is amplified on Planet Tour but he appeared to adapt readily to his lot.
“I just enjoyed being at my first Tour, it was a pleasure. I had no pressure on my shoulders, I was there to do what I love, and in the end it went well,” said Barguil, who would go on to reach Paris a creditable 14th overall, though he maintains he might have cracked the top ten were it not for the lingering effects his own crash on stage 10.
“It’s certainly true that the crash hampered my chances. It would have been nice to have been in the top ten, but I was really there to learn.”
If the 2015 Tour was couched as a learning experience, Barguil will line up this July with undisguised ambition and with greater expectation from his team. Marcel Kittel’s departure to Etixx-QuickStep – allied to Barguil and Tom Dumoulin’s ongoing development – has led to a change of emphasis at Giant-Alpecin.
John Degenkolb will be on hand seeking out a stage win, but the Tour team will not consist of a sprint train as in years past. Laurens ten Dam, for instance, has been signed to shepherd Barguil through the mountains and the Frenchman is targeting a top ten finish and, by consequence, the white jersey of best young rider.
“I’ve seen that it’s possible to finish in the top ten, so I’ll do everything to be there,” he said. “Beyond that, there’s the white jersey. I was third in the young rider classification last year, and this time around the top two [Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet – ed.] aren’t under 25 anymore, so that’s an objective too. But the main goal is to be in the top ten.”
Bardet cites another old truism as he talks to Cyclingnews, saying the Tour is always the Tour, when contemplating this year’s route. Despite his surprisingly stringing showing on the pavé in 2015, he describes himself as an “asse-cou". "i'm a bit reckless, so things like that don’t bother me, in fact I enjoyed it,” he said. However he is glad of a seemingly gentler opening week in the 2016 race.
“It seems a lot more straightforward than last year, with fewer chances of echelons and so on,” he said. “There’s a long time trial this year alright, but I’ve been training a lot more on my time trial bike to prepare for it. It’s not something I really enjoy, I have to say, but I’m forcing myself to do it because I neglected it in the past.”
Along with Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, Bargul is part of a triumvirate of young French talent harbouring grander ambitions at the Tour than the generation preceding them ever dared. He dismissed the idea that there was any internecine rivalry amongst them. Their vision, he said, is global rather than parochial.
“This idea of being the highest French finisher at the Tour, I think that’s really a thing of the past,” Barguil said. “I don’t really look at what Thibaut or Romain are doing, or which is one of us is ahead of the other. It doesn’t matter whether the other riders up there are French or not. The goal isn’t to be the first Frenchman in Paris anymore, the outlook is different now. We want to be the best, not just the best Frenchman.”
Not only the Tour de France
The Tour de France may be the centrepiece of Barguil's 2016season but he is quick to correct the misconception that his entire year is built around July. A more pressing ambition is to start living up to his potential in the Ardennes Classics. His stablemate Tom Dumoulin has, for now at least, accepted that he struggles to produce his best form in late April, but Barguil is determined to crack the code and has altered his build-up accordingly.
“The big change is that I’m doing Tirreno, Catalunya and Pais Vasco. That’s three big stage races before the Ardennes Classics and that should give me a lot of high-intensity work beforehand,” he said. “Then between Pais Vasco and Amstel I’ll look to do some long training rides that I haven’t been able to do in the past – like seven hours with the last hour behind a scooter.
“It’s three years now that I’ve been trying to put in a big performance in the Ardennes and it hasn’t really worked out for me so this year I’m going to try a different approach see how that goes. I’d like to be in the top 10 of one of the three of them, that would be progress.”
Still only 24 years of age and in his fourth season as a professional, Barguil is to the point when identifying his shortcoming in the Classics to date.
“Kilometres in the legs,” he smiled. “Liège is 250 kilometres and that catches you out in the end. Last year I was good up to La Roche-aux-Faucons but I had cramps at the bottom of the climb, I didn’t feed properly. The effects of a little error in the Classics are magnified and you pay for it straightaway.”
Another motivation to perform in the Ardennes – lest it were needed – is to earn selection for the French quintet for the Olympic Games road race in Rio de Janeiro. On what appears the toughest parcours since professionals were allowed to ride in 1996, Barguil is adamant that he can be a factor.
“If I didn’t make it, I’d certainly be very disappointed,” he said. “I think I’d be a very good card to play at the Olympics because I’m a rider who likes to go on the attack. I mean, there’s only four or five riders per team so it’s going to be open and it’s not just going to come down to the last climb. You’re going to want people who can animate the race and not just wait for the last lap.”
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Barry Ryan is European Editor at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.