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Speaking with Eurosport France, the French rider described the pair as “cycling geniuses” with no direct opponents when they were at their best.
Bardet hardly raced against Evenepoel this year, but he had plenty of chance to see Pogačar race up close and personal at the Tour de France in the summer and at the end of the season in Quebec and Italy.
“They have something extra, they are cycling geniuses. When they are at 100 percent, nobody can compete, they race each other. They don’t care about us, the runners-up,” Bardet told Eurosport France.
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It’s not just the power of the likes of Pogačar and Evenepoel that is making life difficult for Bardet and others, it’s the rise of the superteam. As more money has been poured into the top of the sport, a select group of teams have bought up the top talent and is using it to bruising effect against less cash-lined squads.
“Everyone sees that the pace is higher than before. On the climbs, the pace is incredible,” he said.
“The structuring of the teams has changed the situation. When you see the Jumbo or UAE teams in the grand tours, five or six of the eight guys could be leaders. For us, as direct opponents, it gets complicated very quickly. We have to try to keep a cool head and calibrate our forces to survive it.”
Bardet will turn 32 next month. He is part of a strong generation of riders born in 1990 that has marked the last decade in cycling. Others in that generation include Tom Dumoulin, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot, and Peter Sagan.
He hit his grand tour peak, in terms of results, in 2016 and 2017 when he scored back-to-back podiums at the Tour de France. Those results excited French cycling fans about the possibility of a home-grown winner of their home grand tour and Bardet expected that there would be more to come from him.
However, as he has pushed on, a new crop of ultra-young riders has burst through to dominate the top of the sport and dispel the notion that grand tour racing is an older man’s game.
“For me, I feel like there’s a generation window that never happened. It was not empty words when I said in 2016 or 2017 that my best years were still ahead of me,” Bardet said. “The numbers are clear, I’m stronger than those years but there are even stronger young riders. The window of fullness in which I am, in terms of results, cannot be seen. Cycling has evolved very quickly over the past six years.”
Good, but without the sparkle
Bardet enjoyed a decent 2022 season, his second year with Team DSM. He won the Tour of the Alps and went into the Giro d’Italia in great shape. He looked on course to take at least a podium away from the Italian grand tour but had to leave the race during stage 13 after falling ill with a stomach virus.
He bounced back to ride a solid Tour de France, where he finished seventh overall, and later took some top-10 finishes at the final one-day races of the year. It was solid, but it was missing something big.
“I think it’s been a consistent season. Things slipped through my hands a bit from May and my retirement from the Giro. In the end, it was good, very good at times, but without having the sparkle that there could have been if things had gone as we had imagined them in May,” he said.
“On my sporting level, it was a very good season. Now you always have to evaluate against the competition. I think I was present every time I was expected, but in the big races, except in May, there were always two or three riders above the pack. It’s difficult to shine in these conditions and it’s also the deal with current cycling.”
Pushed on the disappointment of the Giro d’Italia, Bardet was reluctant to dig deeper. He knows that he was on for something good, but there’s nothing he can do to change it now.
“I’m not very comfortable talking about it, I’ve drawn a line under it. There’s no point in trying to write the sequel to something that didn’t happen, but I was in optimal condition to do a great race. Everything was there, ready to go,” he said.
Bardet extended his contract with Team DSM earlier this year, bringing his time with the team up to at least 2024. Doing the deal early meant that Bardet had no stress looking for a contract as the season went on. Staying in the same squad for another two years also allows him to put his full focus into his off-season training.
He’s hoping to find the form he had in May once again and is keenly watching the grand tour route reveals to plan his calendar for 2023.
“Physically, I want to take advantage of all the skills I have acquired. I will be on the lookout for opportunities to put myself in the same conditions as before the Giro this year,” Bardet said. “I’m not saying that there are no opportunities, but before the Giro, it’s six months of work. I need things like that to advance and be really good at what I do. The architecture is going to stay the same because I feel I have the fundamentals with me to get there. I’m going to target my grand tours based on the courses and my qualities.”