France came as close to the rainbow jersey as it has in two decades with second-place Romain Bardet on Sunday.

Pre-race favorite Julian Alaphilippe faded on the final climb, but Bardet rose to the occasion and was only beaten to the line in a drag race against Spain’s Alejandro Valverde.

The loaded French team leaves Austria with its first worlds medal since 2005.

“We were close to victory but we shouldn’t be too satisfied with second place in a race like the worlds,” Bardet said. “I knew it would be difficult against Valverde in the sprint. Once on the summit, there weren’t a lot of opportunities and I just gave the maximum. Valverde has a palmares as long as your arm, so second place isn’t so bad.”

Bardet, 28, was the last man standing for a strong French unit built around Alaphilippe. The “bleus” took up the chase when Dane Michael Valgren charged clear with less than 20km to go. France looked to have things under control when Alaphilippe unexpectedly struggled on the final and decisive wall.

The heavily hyped Alaphilippe couldn’t follow the pace on the final lap. Bardet, realizing Alaphilippe was struggling, then counter-attacked up the final Höll climb to force the final selection.

“I’m personally disappointed,” said Alaphilippe, who came in eighth just ahead of teammate Thibaut Pinot. “I was lacking strength in the most decisive moment. I got cramps on the ‘wall’ and I got dropped. It was terrible for me and I had to zig-zag up the climb. I couldn’t pedal anymore and it’s been a while since I’ve had those sensations in a race. I knew I wasn’t going to win.”

With Alaphilippe flailing, Bardet quickly improvised and took the race by the scruff of the neck. The two-time Tour de France podium man held up his end of the bargain and helped drive the wedge between the chasing favorites. Canadian Michael Woods, Valverde, and Bardet broke clear heading toward the finish line. A late-race chase saw Tom Dumoulin (Holland) enter into the fray with just over 1km to go.

Valverde opened up his sprint with 300 meters to go and Bardet could not squeeze past the speedy Spaniard.

“We had a well-oiled plan and we put a lot of people in difficulty on the last wall. When Julian was in difficulty, I thought a bit about what would be the best tactic. I had a little bit of gas left and I went all-in,” Bardet said. “The French team was remarkable for its courage and its self-sacrifice. I really enjoy this type of racing.”

It’s been a long time coming for France, and Bardet’s second place marked the country’s first worlds podium since Anthony Geslin was third in 2005 behind Valverde who was second to Tom Boonen.

Bardet, a fan of old-school racing tactics, said he enjoys racing in one-day battles more than the day-in, day-out tension and control of grand tours.

“Racing is far better without the radios, but I was quite lost there for a while as there were no bikes or cars and I only really knew for sure we were the lead group when Tom [Dumoulin] joined us,” Bardet said. “I should have attacked on the hill. It’s easy to say what you should have done afterwards, but what’s done is done. When you are on the flat with a guy like Valverde, you have to expect him to win.”