QURIYAT, Oman (VN) — The wind blows warm from the Arabian Sea already in February and carries Romain Bardet‘s name toward the top of cycling.
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The Ag2r La Mondiale Frenchman, second to Sky’s Chris Froome in the 2016 Tour de France, is showing promise in the Tour of Oman, and he has intentions to continue improving. Whether that will be a Tour de France win, the first for a Frenchman since Bernard Hinault in 1985, is anyone’s guess.
“Every year he’s stepping up,” said Philippe Mauduit, the French sport director for team Bahrain – Merida. “There’s not one year that he’s done a big step up, he’s regular.
“He’s serious. Taking care of everything from diet to recovery, training, people around him, he’s really smart and doing the right things.”
The Tour of Oman in the Middle East welcomed Bardet this week. Here in the Sultanate, like when he finished second overall to Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain – Merida) in 2015, he is launching his 2017 campaign and starting his march toward the Tour.
He placed 10th in Wednesday’s stage and seventh in Thursday’s, both days with small uphill finishes. Like last year, he hopes to climb away from his rivals in Saturday’s Green Mountain summit finish — the Tour of Oman’s queen stage.
“It’s important to be in good shape at this point in the season, not to absolutely get a big result,” Bardet said sitting on the side of the road. He just finished climbing through the rugged and arid countryside near Quriyat.
“To be in good shape and to race with all my teammates, and to do the preparation as a group — that’s important for the upcoming big races.”
In the big race last year, the Tour, Bardet fought five cyclists for second place behind a dominant Froome. When others seemed unwilling to rattle the Sky cage, he threw down the hammer on a wet downhill with the help of teammate Alexis Vuillermoz in stage 19. Bardet rode time into everyone up to Le Bettex ski resort in the shadows of Mont Blanc.
L’Equipe, the top sports newspaper in France, headlined the following day’s front page with “Heroic” above a photograph of Bardet. Fans in Paris two days later welcomed him with “Merci Bardet” signs.
The French WorldTour team took heart in his performance and gradual improvements, which included sixth overall in 2014 and a stage win in 2015.
“The way he raced was very intelligent, he was patient, and he never stopped fighting, and he delivered a beautiful stage win and this podium that has filled the hearts of cycling fans,” team boss team boss Vincent Lavenu said, “He is capable of winning the Tour. Now, will he win it? That’s another story.”
Lavenu beefed up the team. He brought in riders like Mathias Frank to add to those reliable workhorses like Pierre Latour, Alexis Vuillermoz, and Mickaël Chérel.
“Some of those Ag2r riders have all grown up together,” added Mauduit. “He’s a very demanding guy, he has lots of expectations for himself and he expects that the others around him work in the same way and for the same goals. The team is getting more and more organized and performance-oriented.
“The team works with the Chambéry cycling school and a farm team. They created it and started it from zero, and year after year, it’s become one of the most important amateur teams in France.”
Bardet placed 4:05 minutes behind Froome and right ahead of his other rivals like Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Adam Yates (Orica – Scott) in the 2016 Tour.
His ride toward the top has impressed onlookers, who consider him in that group able to perhaps break the Sky stranglehold on the Tour and topple Froome.
“He’s riding well again here this year,” Fabio Aru (Astana) said in Oman. “He’s not a surprise, he’s been preparing himself well.
“I always raced against him since we were the under-23s, he was always so strong and he’s also pretty serious because you see that he doesn’t go strongly [only] in the Tour, but also in other races. I like those type of riders.”
“It’s for sure difficult [to beat Froome], but last year, he placed second and that’s at least a step in the right direction,” Aru’s Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang added.
“Ag2r also tried to improve their team to be able to compete against Sky. That’s what you need to do. You can’t just do it with one man against a team of super riders. That’s impossible.”
“It could be nice for cycling to see some new kids popping up and breaking the routine,” continued Mauduit. “It’s become a routine to see Froome on top of the podium every year.”
Bardet does not just have the weight of the Tour on his shoulders, but the weight of the nation on him. The cyclist from Brioude, in the south, appears able enough in the quest to end France’s dry spell.
“Let’s try it!” Bardet said “How? Maybe we can try to do a mix of things like Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador did in the Vuelta a España last year on the stage to Formigal. Or we can go on the downhill like last year in the Tour de France. In a mix like that, we can make some things happen.”