There is a strong case to be made that if Romain Bardet had not been forced out of the Giro d'Italia with illness, the Frenchman would have gone onto win the race.
He was looking in his best form for years, had just come off the back of a win at the Tour of the Alps, and was flying high on general classification as the race meandered towards its crucial final week. His rivals were either unproven or flawed, and there was a consensus that he was finally back at the top.
Sadly for him, and for Team DSM, Bardet quit the Giro on stage 14, suffering from illness, ruining their carefully laid plans.
The early withdrawal from the Giro does mean, however, that he is ready and raring to go for the Tour de France, which begins in just over a fortnight. The Frenchman confirmed the news in a social media post on Monday morning, his first Tour for DSM.
Speaking to Cycling Weekly on Monday afternoon, Bardet said he was "pretty excited" to be heading back to the French Grand Tour, his home race. It is the scene of his greatest successes, where he twice finished on the podium, finishing second in 2016 and then third in 2017, both times behind Chris Froome. He has also won three stages at the race.
Last year, he missed the Tour for the first year since 2012, as he raced the Giro instead, where he finished seventh on general classification, and then the Vuelta a España, where he won a stage, his first victory in three years.
"To be honest, I'm pretty excited," Bardet said. "I don't think it will be a different story because the Tour remains the Tour. On the approach, I naturally expected to be at the Tour, but I really hoped to have a successful Giro before. It's a bit of a change for me, we have to adapt.
"I have no racing before the Tour, just some training, so there is much more unknown. We will line up with a super aggressive team, and hopefully do something like the team did in the past, going for some nice stage wins together."
He is referencing the 2020 Tour, where DSM, then Sunweb, won three stages at the race through Søren Kragh Andersen and Marc Hirschi. More than that, though, the team impressed through their dynamic racing, always seeming to be on the front foot. It was a blueprint for how a team can ride the Tour without a focal general classification rider.
On that, Bardet maintains that he will not be aiming for high up on GC as he goes into the race.
"GC is not the goal," he said. "It's so frustrating for me, with the Giro, and the last time at the Tour I did not finish with a crash. I just need to enjoy the racing a bit more. Take it stage by stage, it looks like a super hard Tour, and I just want to be healthy and also a bit safe. Hopefully have some good rides in the mountains."
He was forced out of the pandemic-delayed 2020 edition after suffering concussion in a crash, so it will be a case of making sure of staying upright first and foremost, and then seeing where he is at.
Bardet's form is a mystery, seeing as he was seemingly on top of it heading into the Giro, but then has not raced since. It is a mystery for the man from Haute-Loire as much as it is for people in the media or his fans.
"That's the main question," Bardet said. "That's what I keep asking myself now. I don't really know, we will see. I only did two weeks at the Giro, then I was off the bike for one week, and then we start from the bottom again. For sure I won't be in top shape at the start, but I will try to do my best to be fully good again in the Tour."
Joining him at the Tour will be his compatriot and old rival Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), also taking part in his first edition since 2020. For fans of nostalgia everywhere, it would be fun to have some more of the Pinot-Bardet show this July.
Thank you for reading 20 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access
Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1
*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription
Join now for unlimited access
Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1