MILAN (VN) — The hype was there in 2014 with three Frenchman in the top 10 of the Tour de France, but Thursday, in the Critérium du Dauphiné stage race, that feeling was rekindled thanks to Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Bardet shot free on the downhill run from the Col d’Allos and left behind a pack that included American and new overall leader, Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Chris Froome (Sky), and noted descender and 2014 Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). After a hair-raising 16-kilometer descent, he gained over a minute on his rivals.
The French fans standing at the top of the Pra Loup climb today could only say “chapeau” when Bardet arrived to the top, 6.2 kilometers later in Ag2r’s distinctive brown kit. They saw one of France’s top talents win the stage, one who many hope will become the first home rider to win the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Bardet, 24, from south-central France, will not let the stage win or his sixth place in the Tour last year go to his head. If you ask him if he can win the 2015 Tour, he will tell you to forget about it. He hopes simply to improve on his sixth place in last year’s race.
The way he sliced up the Allos descent Thursday, however, gave followers increased confidence that he could be France’s next Tour winner — if not this year, then in the near future. Of course, eyes are also on Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) to improve and lead their country to success.
“If I’m betting on someone, I’d bet on Bardet,” 1987 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France winner, Steven Roche told VeloNews last year.
“Pinot is more of a pure climber, but Bardet can climb and time trial. French cycling should be happy these guys are coming through after years of searching for the next Laurent Fignon or Bernard Hinault.”
Bardet considers himself a climber first, but is working on his time trial form. Had Ag2r not lost so much time in Tuesday’s team time trial, then he would already be in the race leader’s jersey instead of third, 20 seconds behind van Garderen.
“I won’t pretend to say that I want to win the Tour in the medium-term just because I don’t have the experience to so,” Bardet told Velo 101 over the winter.
“I’ve only completed two grand tours [15th: 2013 Tour, sixth: 2014 Tour]. I’d like to confirm my top 10 with all the big names, to be as close as possible to fifth place. This is my short-term goal.”
Bardet also realized another goal Thursday, winning a WorldTour race and ending a 15-month drought.
“I told my teammates recently that I’m feeling better and better,”Bardet said after the win Thursday. “I know my shape and my capabilities. I just hope that I’ll be decent for the Tour de France.”
In Bardet’s favor, on July 22 he will race the exact same stage, number 17, in the Tour de France. It is more reason for the French to hope that the next home winner is coming around the corner.
“Patience,” veteran L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel told VeloNews at the 2014 Tour. “In the future, these riders will be even better as they gain experience, and improve in time trialing. This is only the beginning.”