Romain Bardet speaks freely and openly about how he needs to ride to conquer Chris Froome and the Tour de France this July. He
says in French-flavoured English that he has to race his home Grand Tour like never before.
It is, after all, the next logical step forward for the 26-year-old Ag2r rider. On paper, after placing second to Froome by 4-05 minutes in 2016, he is first in line to challenge for the blue porcelain vase given to the victor on the Champs-Élysées.
“For the Tour, I just have to race it like I never rode before,” Bardet says. “I just have to forget last year because every year is different. I need to try to do some things not only with my legs but with my head, and to listen to my feelings and to try to make good decisions.”
Bardet settles back into a big armchair that nearly engulfs him. His baby face, which narrows down to his chin, bears an inquisitive look. He knows of Cycling Weekly and asks about the magazine’s circulation numbers.
Last year within these pages we described a five-way tug-of-war for second place in the Tour behind an unstoppable Froome.
Bauke Mollema crashed and slipped away, Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana steadily improved, and Adam Yates held on. But Bardet jolted the race to life at a time when it appeared to be flat-lining with Froome on his way to a third title.
Insiders and critics had been struggling with a dull Tour, highlighted mostly by Froome’s attacks downhill and in the cross-winds, and of course the Ventoux incident.
However, on the final Friday, on the wet roads shadowed by Mont Blanc, Bardet attacked when no one else seemed able or willing.
His effort through the valley and up Le Bettex won him the stage and pushed him from fifth to second.
“Heroic” read the headline in French sports daily L’Equipe on Saturday morning. Race director Christian Prudhomme said, “Bardet’s win was one of panache. It gives us hope for the future.”
Tide of support
Since last July, Bardet’s focus has been on the 2017 Tour de France. The French public’s too. They believe that after years of drought — and hopes with others like Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and now-retired Jean-Christophe Péraud — that they have found someone to win their home race.
The last to do so was Bernard Hinault, 32 years ago in 1985.
Bardet senses the rising tide of support at home. He travels regularly through Paris, taking flights from Charles de Gaulle to races, or home to Brioude.
“Life is different, for sure. The looks I get from people who didn’t really know me have changed”
Otherwise, he will fly or drive to Nice, where he has an apartment for warm-weather training in the winter, and where he is just as recognisable after last year’s ‘heroic’ effort.
“Yes, quite a bit, for sure [life’s changed] because you’re more recognisable because you have had your face on the French television in the month of July.
“I know all the sacrifices that I have made, and those that my girlfriend and my family have made. That doesn’t change… But for sure, the looks from other people who didn’t really know me have changed.
“This is just cycling — we are not talking about real life. OK, it’s real for sure, it’s a part of my life and I’m trying to do the best I can, but I’m a person and I’m not just the man who finished second on the podium in a Grand Tour.
“For people it’s entertaining to see you on the television.
“Yes it’s hard because you know [the Tour is] in France, but on the other hand it’s easier because you have much support from the French fans.
“We have so much focus from the media and we always hear our names but once you’re on your bike with the public it’s also good to be French and to have the support on the side of the road.
“They’ll say, ‘This is the year he can win’, but that’s not the only reason I ride my bike. Sure it’s a big motivation, but I really enjoy myself and being a bike rider.”
Bardet talks of rides through the hills around his town. He will head out for hours and at times, veer from his normal routes to new roads and villages. He smiles and speaks with the same spark of a new rider. The adventure, he says, is what motivates him.
However, his killer instinct and risk-taking puts Bardet in the top tier of stage racers. The same bravado Froome showed during the 2016 Tour, attacking on a descent, comes naturally for Bardet.
Watch: Tour de France preview, stages one to nine
One of his breakthrough wins came in the 2015 Critérium du Dauphiné, with a hair-raising solo ride down the Col d’Allos to the final Pra Loup finish.
“I want to take more risks for sure,” Bardet continues. “I have to do that because I’ve already finished second in the Tour. I know how hard it is to get a top five.
“But when you’ve already finished second maybe you can take some chances, if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work. I need to have this freedom to race the way I like.”
“On Mont Blanc last year, he showed balls,” says Giuseppe Martinelli, manager of the rival Astana team. “He took advantage when Froome crashed, but he pulled it off, he held it off for seven or eight kilometres, including the flats before the finishing climb.
“He could’ve turned the Tour on its head that day. He’s a rider who knows how to handle himself. He’s consistent, while Thibaut Pinot is up and down and not consistent.
“Bardet’s team races just for him, it’s not the usual French team that bounces around from one to another rider, it’s more Italian and focused, and that’s important for the Tour.
“He’s smart, he manages himself well. It’s not what he lacks, but what the others have. When he goes up against Froome, [Alberto] Contador and [Nairo] Quintana, he can beat them sometimes, but often they beat you.
“Bardet still has some years ahead. He’ll be there with Quintana and Fabio [Aru], Pinot… Eventually Froome will be on his way down and Bardet will have his chance.”
To have his chance, Bardet has slowly been building a group around him in French team Ag2r-La Mondiale. Since his debut Tour, where he finished 15th in 2013, the management has been listening to his needs. It has helped, he rode to sixth, ninth and second overall over the last three years.
“I am stronger this year. I am focusing on my ability to ride harder”
He now has his team-mates — Clément Chevrier, Mikaël Chérel — sports director Julien Jurdie, nutritionist Denis Riché, and even his preferred bus driver Cyrille Bertino.
The signings were part of a four-year plan that began two years ago.
“Since I turned pro, every year, I feel that our plan has worked,” says Bardet. “I really like to feel that I have been making steps but I’m stronger this year than last year. I don’t like to think about just results.
“I prefer to focus on my own performance and my abilities to ride harder.”
Chevrier, who transferred from team IAM Cycling, is Bardet’s best friend and, of all things, drinking partner. Good French wine, in moderation of course.
“We always have a good time, Romain takes time to learn many things,” Chevrier says. “He’s a role model, in the way he works, he embodies the revival of French cycling.”
Ag2r took advantage of the Swiss team IAM Cycling closing and hired four of its cyclists, including Mathias Frank and Classics star Oliver Naesen.
Naesen could guide Bardet through the early hectic stages of the Tour this year on its way out of Dusseldorf. Alexis Vuillermoz, Chérel and new-hire Frank, who proved so valuable in BMC Racing, will position him on the climbs.
“Some have said that maybe we have had the best recruitment over the off-season so I’m pretty happy with that because now I have some strong riders around me. My goal is to be able to perform stronger together,” adds Bardet.
“You need to have very good guys around and to feel that the team is like a family. That is what’s really important to me. We are building something very important with the team. The group was already strong last year.
“All the men on the Tour roster were strong around me. But when you add some guys like Mathias Frank, Oliver Naesen, Stijn Vandenbergh or Alexandre Geniez… My group will for sure be stronger this year.”
When it comes to the Tour, Bardet’s group will have to face down Froome’s helpers Michal Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao, Mikel Nieve, Vasil Kiryienka… Men who can win on their own and lead Grand Tour teams if given the chance.
Sky can afford to hire them with a budget nearly double Ag2r’s.
“They are the best team in the world,” concedes Bardet.
“I guess they have a good process and a good method to have the best guy and the best condition at the right time, so they’re for sure the best team in the mix.
“We have adopted some of these marginal gains like altitude camps and we try to work much on our time trial positions. And materials. But cycling involves other things too,” Bardet says.
“You need to have this approach if you want to win. But you know that we are a group of friends and the team works like a family and maybe it’s hard to put numbers on that, but it also counts.”
Bardet pauses. He still sits back in his seat, forcing me to lean over to hear him. “It’s not only marginal gains,” he adds, before underlining those “other things” that make up a Tour-winning recipe.
“To feel good and have a good atmosphere among the riders, and you also need that to perform and to be comfortable with your team. It’s not only what you could eat and at which time, or how you can and how you should ride tomorrow.
“Maybe tomorrow will be a nice day and I want to do a big training ride. I’d like to have the freedom to be able to do what I want to do sometimes.”
Jean-Baptiste Quiclet has coached Bardet for the last three years. He gives his charge enough freedom to do what he wants in training depending on the day.
This year they went to Tenerife, the Spanish island where Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome paved the way to their Tour de France wins.
“It’s hard to go at altitude so early in the season. I heard about men who spend Christmas at altitude camps and that’s pretty crazy, maybe you should be resting in November so that you have better condition when you come back. Sometimes it’s always more, more, more,” says Bardet.
His second camp is in southern Spain at the high-altitude plain in Sierra Nevada. Some of the programme needed to be re-scheduled after officials booted him out of Paris-Nice for taking an extended tow from the team car while chasing back.
He says that he gladly accepts the penalty, for it — along with his training and racing — is what will shape him for what could become his biggest Tour de France yet.