INTERVIEW: ROMAIN BARDET

Procycling - - Contents - Writer Ed­ward Pick­er­ing Por­trait pho­tog­ra­phy Chris Auld

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

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