QUIMPER, France (AFP) — Outside the Ag2r La Mondiale team bus at the Tour de France starting line in Lorient on Wednesday there stood just seven warmup bikes, with Axel Domont no longer needing his after a crash at 70 kph on the previous day’s stage.
Domont, who broke his collarbone, was a key member in Romain Bardet’s bid to win his first Tour de France after the climber finished second in 2016 and third in 2017.
The slightly-built Bardet’s Ag2r team is racing the remaining stages of the 2018 Tour down a man after an over-curious roadside fan stepped into the path of the onrushing peloton to take a photo.
As riders swerved slightly, a wave went through the pack that brought down 15 or 20 of them, ending Domont’s Tour with a trip to the local emergency room.
While this was awful news for the rider himself, his team and France’s hopes of a first win since 1985, it was a boon to Bardet’s rivals, as a Tour de France winner generally relies on the support of a full team.
And with teams reduced from nine to eight members for the first time this year, any loss is felt even more keenly than ever.
“It’s a huge loss, he was our warrior and his role is not so easily filled. He looked after Romain in those spaces where he could take on the effort,” Ag2r sport director Julien Jurdie told AFP.
“He was in effect Romain’s bodyguard, the one who would ride beside him and had been due to do so over the first nine stages,” said Jurdie, who has been with the team for 12 years.
“He’s been the one going back and forth to pick up water, making the kind of efforts that Romain, or the rest of the team, did not have to make.”
“It’s not the first time we have lost a rider on the Tour de France and it won’t be the last time either, I guess.”
Six riders had pulled out of the field ahead of Thursday’s sixth stage — a 181km ride from Brest to the punishing Mur-de Bretagne.
“He was also the one who lifted morale and created a good atmosphere on the team bus,” said Jurdie. In the hours following Domont’s crash, there was a palpable sense of sadness around the team.
“We have had a team briefing on the bus on the way here this morning to tell the rest of the team we cannot allow this loss to become a weakness. Instead we have to turn this into a form of strength.”
“There will be no nominative replacement for Axel. Depending on the kind of stage, we’ll be asking different members of the team to fulfill the role he had.
Jurdie then singled out the powerful Swiss rider Silvan Dillier, a strong time trialist who is on the team mainly for the first week of the race.
“We’ll be calling upon Silvan a lot this week, especially when we get to Arras-Roubaix on the cobbles, he’ll be looking after Romain on the cobbles,” Jurdie said.
“It’s very, very important he stays with Romain as long as possible, that he guides him as long as possible on Sunday on this stage that is a kind of ‘Queen stage’ of the Tour.”
Bardet said the cobbles are not his big thing, and he is mainly trying to stay out of trouble until the mountains next week, where he will feel more at home.