Tour de France

Frenchman Bardet continues climb to Paris podium

At 1:05 out of second entering stage 19, Romain Bardet says he feels strong enough to attack at the Tour this weekend.

CHAMONIX, France (VN) — Romain Bardet carries the weight of an entire nation, but he promises to stand tall on the final weekend of the Tour de France.

In a Tour without a French stage winner, the Ag2r La Mondiale rider is tantalizingly close to a career-first podium. The Frenchman’s strong ride in Thursday’s time trial put him on the front page of L’Equipe. The pressure’s on.

“I am not going to settle for fifth,” Bardet said defiantly. “I am going to attack, and the goal is to reach the podium. I am not a threat to Froome, but I am for second or third. It’s going to be a big fight.”

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Bardet starts the final two mountain stages in fifth at 4:57 back, well beyond reach of the yellow. The podium is within his grasp. He’s only 1:05 behind second-place Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo) and 41 seconds behind third-place Adam Yates (Orica – BikeExchange). Richie Porte (BMC Racing) is hot on his heels at 6:00 back, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) fourth at 4:37 back. At 5:00 behind in sixth, Fabio Aru (Astana) is also a podium contender. It’s a six-man race for two podium spots.

“I am very satisfied with my form,” Bardet said. “I hope to be up to the task in the final two stages to attack the leaders. I have to give everything, with no regrets.”

This is Bardet’s fourth Tour start, and among the new generation of French contenders he’s been the most consistent. He was 15th in his debut in 2013, and rode to sixth in 2014, the same year Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) finished second and third for France’s first podium spots in years. Last year he was ninth, but scored his first Tour stage win at St-Jean-de-Maurienne.

Another member of the star-studded “Class of 1990,” Bardet is coming of age at a good time for French cycling. While he works part-time on a master’s degree, he’s been working his way up the peloton since turning pro in 2012.

A pure climber with improving TT chops, he won the Tour de l’Ain in 2013, a stage at the 2015 Critérium du Dauphiné, and a stage last year at the Tour. Bardet says the time is right to confirm his place in the peloton with a podium finish in Paris.

“I am more experienced and more mature,” he said. “The podium is the logical step. Everyone will fight to the end. I am feeling strong, and I have two days to prove it.”

Ag2r boss Vincent Lavenu said Thursday’s time trial — Bardet was fifth at 42 seconds slower than Froome, but only nine seconds off Porte’s pace — is confirmation of Bardet’s form and upward mobility in this Tour. He punched into the top 10 in the Pyrénées, and has been patiently chipping away to claw within reach of the podium.

“He passed an important milestone with the time trial. He had the strength to challenge his rivals,” Lavenu said. “Everyone is tired now. I think Joux Plane [Saturday’s final climb] will decide the final podium.”