Romain Bardet's Ag2r teammates are confident the rising French star will ride into the yellow jersey in future Tours de France.

SALON-DE-PROVENCE, France (VN) — Romain Bardet will return and win the Tour de France soon, says his Ag2r La Mondiale team after a close-fought battle with Chris Froome (Sky) in this 2017 edition.

Bardet sits 23 second back in second overall after 19 stages in the 2017 edition, fast improvement from an already strong ride in 2016. That year, the 26-year-old Frenchman finished second to Froome at 4:05.

“He’ll come back to win the Tour de France. I hope so, he deserves it,” teammate Jan Bakelants told VeloNews.

“He’s a very nice guy to work for, polite and intelligent. He’s a great leader to have. He knows how important a good team around him is, and I think we have that here. You see here that there is a great dynamic in the team that everything falls into place and everyone fights for the other.”

Bardet started the race without his right-hand man Clément Chevrier, who had a crash and head trauma early this year. The two grew up racing together and often escape on wine tasting trips. The French WorldTour team still created a solid fortress around France’s star. Belgian champion Oliver Naesen steamrolled the flats. Mathias Frank, Pierre Latour, and Alexis Vuillermoz sheltered him on the high passes.

“Already he is very strong,” Ben Gastauer said. “He also has the head, the mentality to fight for a long time and never give up. That makes a difference for three weeks.

“If you don’t risk anything then you will not win. He is focused on winning at all costs, the rest, second place for example, is not very important.”

“He has the experience and is ready for the job,” said Naesen. “He’s at my age, 26, and he’s already been second one time. Sometimes you have to gamble it all to win it. If I was him I would do it the same. And he has been second before.”

Last year on the Mont Blanc stage, Bardet attacked when no one else seemed to be able or willing, to earn his second place overall with a stage win. This year, he tried another coup on the Galibier stage and poured everything into a last-ditch effort to overthrow Froome on the Izoard stage. Both days, Froome fended off the attacks.

Ag2r and France want to see him succeed. In doing so, he would become the first Frenchman to win the home race since 1985 when Bernard Hinault won.

This year it is not to be. In fact, he risks sliding down to third overall in the 22.5-kilometer Marseille stage given Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) sits right behind him and time trials that much better.

However, Vincent Lavenu and the team are building a long-term project off a series of top-10 finishes since 2014. He now has his teammates like Chevrier and Mickaël Chérel, sport director Julien Jurdie, nutritionist Denis Riché, and even his preferred bus driver Cyrille Bertino. The group joined as part of a four-year ‘Project Bardet’ that began in 2015.

“They have been looking for the next French winner for a long time,” Naesen continued. “I think he has the capacity to do so but just needs to improve a little bit. He needs to improve in the time trial but consider he’s only 26 years old.

“If anyone could’ve beat Froome, I expected that Romain Bardet could have this year. And in the future he can keep battling because Froome is 32 and he’s not going to be the best forever. For now, Froome is the best but next year and the year after, I expect Romain to be at the top.”

“He is clearly a rider for the grand tours, and I don’t know if he always wants to do the Tour de France, but maybe he should try the Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a España once,” added Gastauer. “Even if it didn’t come this year, he will win the Tour soon.”