INTERVIEW: ROMAIN BARDET
France expects, following Romain Bardet’s second at the 2016 Tour. We catch up with the Frenchman to find out how he’s dealing with it
Second to Chris Froome at the 2016 Tour de France, Romain Bardet is the home country’s great yellow jersey hope. Procycling went to meet him in Paris to talk rural roots, balancing a cool head with fiery racing instincts and why the Tour is not the only race in his world
The Apprentice’s Tour de France was an 18th century rite of passage for young tradesmen, a loosely defined itinerary of stops in towns making a rough circle of about 1400 miles around the Massif Central. Workers spent four or five years moving from place to place, spending a few weeks or more in each one, learning about local aspects of their chosen trade before they moved on. During their tour, the apprentices would be accepted into guilds of their trades – which were as varied as architecture, carpentry and masonry – and given the designation ‘Compagnon du Tour de France’. At the end, they returned home.
It’s not only because Romain Bardet is a protagonist in the modern Tour de France that he feels like a contemporary version of a Compagnon. Nor is it because he’s from the Auvergne (the administrative and historical region that largely contains the Massif Central), though that fact is extremely important to him. The necessity of going out into the world then returning home is a central part of his character. “The Auvergne is chez moi,” he tells
Procycling. “It’s an important region to me because that is where my roots are. I travel all over the world, but I have this fixation point which is stable and doesn’t move. It’s my terroir, my identity. When I’m chez
moi I feel comfortable.” The Auvergne is a landlocked, halfway-house sort of region that is neither high, mountainous east nor Atlantic west, neither fertile north nor Mediterranean south. Until very recently, it consisted of the four departements of Puy-de-Dôme, Cantal, Haute-Loire and Allier. It’s now been subsumed into Auvergne-Rhône Alpes, which stretches all the way to the eastern border of France. The Auvergne is sparsely populated, and well in the bottom half of France’s regions economically.
The landscape is high plateau, combined with volcanic peaks and domes covered in verdant fields and forests. The roads, like the Auvergnat people, are hard, but the effort taken to understand them makes them more rewarding.
“It’s the best training for me there,” says Bardet. “It’s beautiful, green and wild. And very hilly, so it’s been good for my development as a climber. My evolution as a cyclist has happened on those hills, and I need to return to my hills regularly during the season.”
Bardet was born and grew up in Brioude, a small town in the south of the Auvergne where his grandparents farmed. In case there’s any doubt about how important Bardet’s roots are to his cycling, his first ever top-six finish in a WorldTour race came on stage three of Paris-Nice 2013, which finished in Brioude. Bardet now lives in Clermont-Ferrand, the region’s capital, equidistant from the roads upon which he loves to ride, and the friends who he feels keep him grounded.
“An Auvergnat is somebody who is very attached to his terroir and identity. The people are a little hard; they are people of the land, and they are not so expansive when you first meet them. But once they accept somebody, they are generous.”
He adds: “I’m Auvergnat, of course. But I am in the middle of concentric circles. I also feel French, and I feel European. That is very important to say right now.”
Bardet’s level-headedness is the immovable object that the force of French public expectation and pressure is about to meet. He was the runner-up to Chris Froome in the 2016 Tour de France, and the only one of the GC favourites, Froome included, who took significant time out of his rivals in the mountain stages of the race. Through the Pyrenees and into the Alps, there was a deadlock between
Froome, Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte and Bauke Mollema (for a while). There were none of the summit finish attacks of Froome’s previous Tour wins, and the gaps between the riders came in handfuls of seconds. Froome’s advantage was carved out primarily in the Ardèche time trial, and the Briton had also been aggressive and gained more time on the downhill finish in Luchon and in the crosswinds of Montpellier.
But in the penultimate mountain stage to St Gervais, Mont Blanc, Bardet ghosted off the front on the final descent along with team-mate Mikaël Cherel. Cherel gave his all to give Bardet as much of a head start as possible, and the Frenchman was helped by hesitancy in the favourites’ group, caused by a previous Froome crash. On the summit finish, he maintained his advantage and put half a minute into his rivals. This fact, along with a strong ride in the previous day’s Megève time trial, cemented his second place overall. It was a great result, but now France expects. L’Equipe put Bardet on the front page on the Friday (“Bardet, All the Way” the headline), the Saturday (“Heroic”) and the Sunday (“On a cloud”) of the final week. It wasn’t until the Monday that the actual winner, Froome, made the front page. There was even a press conference for Bardet following the traditional press conference for the yellow jersey winner. F rance’s win drought at the Tour is woven deeply into the fabric of the sport. Bernard Hinault won the yellow jersey in 1985, and the 31 years since have seen a bell curve of GC finishes. French riders were second in 1986, third in 1987 and second again in 1989. Then things got worse in the 1990s and 2000s, with the nadir coming in 2007 when the highestplaced French rider was Stéphane Goubert, 27th overall. Things have improved in the last few years, as the host country has been second twice in the last three Tours (Bardet, and his erstwhile team-mate Jean-Christophe Péraud in 2014).
The pressure on Bardet is immense, especially as he has been the best French finisher in three of the last four Tours. But it seems to bounce off him.
The last few Tours have seen the emergence of both Thibaut Pinot and Bardet as GC hopefuls. Initially, Pinot looked more talented. Precocious and mercurial, Pinot was 10th in 2012 and third in 2014. But he’s also the most temperamental, and he seems to have been susceptible to the expectations of the home fans and media in a far more damaging way than Bardet.
It’s true that Pinot’s early emergence sheltered Bardet from the pressure – though both were born in 1990, Pinot finished 10th in the Tour before Bardet had even started the race. But it’s also true that Bardet is temperamentally more suited than Pinot to withstand the pressure. It bounces off him, even though it must be very wearing. Procycling saw Bardet roll to the start of a stage at the end of last year’s race, with dozens of fans reaching out over the fences to touch him.
“The pressure is inevitable. The French have been waiting since Bernard Hinault,” Bardet says. “I don’t know if the next French winner is among us at the
“In my inner circle of friends we never talk about cycling, and that helps keep things in perspective. I’m not de ined by cycling”
moment. It’s not the challenge of my life to win the Tour, because I like the sport, and I still like my life not having won the Tour. The important thing for me is to succeed with my own values and convictions.
“There are other things apart from the bike in my life. Of course, cycling has had a huge impact on my life, but there are other things. In my inner circle of friends we never talk about cycling, and that helps to keep things in perspective. I’m not defined by cycling. All I am is a cyclist. I’m not a genius. I didn’t invent a vaccine. I do understand that sport carries a lot of emotion for many people. But it’s only sport.” S
“I have learned from the three Tours I did before 2016 that you need a lot of patience, you have to wait for the right moment”
omething about Bardet in a couple of races last year makes one wonder if the cool head he keeps outside of the sport isn’t replaced by more emotional characteristics in the heat of battle. At the Critérium du Dauphiné, he’d been in a break with Pinot, to the summit finish at Méribel Les Allues, on the penultimate day. Though he’d started the day 1:34 down on GC, he was putting pressure on race leader Froome, having been three minutes clear at one point. Instead of working with Pinot and indulging in an unspoken but mutually beneficial project of dividing the spoils - stage win to Pinot and time gain to Bardet – Bardet attacked Pinot with three kilometres to go, which disrupted the pair’s rhythm and caused Pinot to stop contributing. Pinot won the stage anyway, but Bardet’s lead had been cut down. He ended the day 21 seconds down, then a small gain and a time bonus the next day left him 12 seconds behind Froome in the final GC. If he’d kept his head and worked with Pinot, he could well have won the Dauphiné.
Then at the Tour he sat up and showboated for the final 50 metres of his stage win. With a tight battle for second spot in the GC, the less risky strategy might have been to drive for the line, and enjoy the win on the other side of it.
“The two situations were different,” says Bardet. “At the Dauphiné I was a bit nervous and I hadn’t won anything yet that season. I wanted to win and I was thinking that our advantage wasn’t big enough on the climb – Sky were taking time back. I wasn’t thinking about the GC.
“At the Tour, I was about to win the stage and I wanted to savour the moment and think about the GC later. My first stage win at the Tour, at St-Jean-de-Maurienne [in 2015] passed very quickly, so I wanted to savour it this time.”
Bardet races on feeling, and everything he does in an event is improvisatory. (It should be pointed out that the best improvisers, in music, or any other field, tend to be absolutely rooted in perfect technique, extensive practice and conscious analysis.) His Alpine attack with Cherel last year emerged out of the circumstances of the stage and his feeling at the time, not through any planning.
“I have learned from the three Tours I did before 2016 that you need a lot of patience,” he says. “You have to wait for the right moment. At the same time, you never know at the time if it is the right moment, but I knew I was going to attack.
“In the race, it’s important not to be stressed by emotions and to maintain spontaneity. To not look at the power meter, to trust your training. In a race it’s not my heart rate but the feeling, the gradient, that gives me my rhythm.
“In life, I am very rational. I plan my training. I train. I eat the right things. I analyse. But when you get to a race, the training is finished. To be a high-level athlete you have to be very organised, but in a race you have to be able to…” he tails off, and tries to explain why he does what he does in a race. “It’s the instant, and you either know it or you don’t. It’s inspiration. But it’s also the experience of previous races. All of my wins, they’re not exactly founded on strokes of madness, but on intuition at least. In a competition I get a boost. It’s supraphysical. It comes from a connection between the sensations that I have, the perception of how far there is to go and my capacity to be strong.
“I had already finished sixth in the Tour,” he says of his attack at St Gervais. “It was the podium or
nothing. I needed to climb another step. I think second was the best possible place for me last year, for my abilities and in those circumstances. I wasn’t going to beat Froome.”
And winning the Tour? “What I envisage is that I’ll become a better rider. That’s not to say that I’m going to win the Tour. But I will work hard to become a better rider.” T he Tour is not the be-all and end-all of Bardet’s ambitions. Though he doesn’t win very often, he’s consistent all year. He starts every season strongly, generally has a good Tour de France (even in his ‘bad’ year, 2015, he won a stage and came ninth), and finishes strongly. In 2016, he was second in Oman in February, second in the Tour and fourth at Il Lombardia, in October.
“My physical level is good all the way through the year, though I have a little peak for the Tour de France,” he says. “I’m happy to have won Tour stages, and they were important in France, but I’d love to win a Monument “ “A lot of riders are at a good level all year round, and very close to each other, and I think that’s an indication that cycling is in better health.”
Bardet’s fourth place finish in the 2016 Lombardia was his best result in a Classic so far, though he’s also had good results at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, with sixth place in 2015 the high water mark.
“I’m also motivated by the Classics. I’d like to do a big performance in them. Cycling isn’t only the Tour, and I love the sport, so it’s important to respect those races. It would be an incredible emotion to win a Classic; maybe even more than a Tour stage. I’m happy to have won Tour stages, and they were important in France, but I’d love to win a Monument. I’ve done Liège four times and I’ve been at the front four times. Each time I learn a little more. You have to have experience and know how to ride tactically, because it’s not just on a physical level that you win a Classic. At the end of a race like that you often get 10 riders who are all very close in level.
“Winning is difficult, however. In the stage races I am going for GC, and the GC is already a very difficult thing to do. You have to be well placed through the whole race, and that doesn’t necessarily mean winning. Sometimes you have to make a choice between a stage win and finishing fourth or fifth.”
Bardet may or may not be the next French rider to win the Tour. He’s strong enough to have finished second overall already and is still improving – the difference between him and the yellow jersey may be something as simple as a stroke of good luck. But the impression he gives is that while he can win the Tour, he doesn’t need to, and whether that’s an advantage or not is a moot point.
Bardet passes Froome on Ventoux, after the Briton’s crash
Bardet was unshakeable in the 2016 Tour, inishing consistently highly