For the last decade, being a French professional cyclist and a genuine stage race contender seemed to be mutually exclusive properties. They were the blokes perennially battling for ninth place: plucky, but limited.
Their incidental achievements were given the kind of sympathetic, disproportionate coverage afforded to a British Wimbledon outsider who makes it to the fourth round. The home nation had gotten good at losing with panache.
Sacre bleu: they were becoming quirky sideshows at their own circus. (An exception that proves the rule? The ringmaster himself, Thomas Voeckler, gurning and grinding his way to nearly winning the race in 2011.)
That era is over.
Romain Bardet may be French – a weight that presses down on him especially hard every July – but forget the name and accent, and you would struggle to guess his nationality. He is a man driven by Anglo-Saxon rationality, not impulses; he drives a German car and carries a similar efficiency. He has the groundbreaking approach and drive of an American dot-com millionaire. This is a go-getting young man of the world who does not mess about.
Out of Lycra, he looks like he belongs in a Kooples catalogue or staring mournfully at a sea of screaming teenage girls while fronting a medium-level indie music band. Romain and the Grimpeurs, perhaps.
But he’s a professional cyclist, and some cyclist. If you drew a graph of Bardet’s progress so far, it would go up in an unrelenting straight line, like a profile of the steep mountains that he climbs so well.
2012: turned pro.
2013: fifteenth in his debut Tour and the bestowed title of best Frenchman.
2014: sixth overall at the Tour de France.
2015: sixth in Liège -Bastogne-Liège and a Dauphiné stage victory.
[In 2016 Bardet would finish second in the Criterium du Dauphiné and Tour de France – Ed.]
His presence in the group of favourites is already no surprise. How could Bardet be unhappy with this unfettered progress? Very easily, it seems.
Happiness is easy
“I don’t remember when I was ever really happy,” he says. “I always saw what was wrong. But I’m a bad loser, a born competitor; that’s why, when I was younger, sometimes when I felt I haven’t done my maximum, perhaps I’d be upset.”
Satisfaction is the enemy of ambition. “I’m really afraid that the day I can congratulate myself, maybe I’ll make less effort all year round,” Bardet says.
This is either the mentality of a misery guts or a champion in waiting.
The white television transmitter protruding from the top of the Puy de Dôme glimmers on the near horizon. The road up the former Tour de France battleground is closed, but occasionally in the winter, Bardet threads his way to the summit on snowy mountain tracks and looks down on Clermont-Ferrand, the rugby-mad city he calls home.
Today, we are taking the faster option, scaling it in the Frenchman’s Audi. Bardet smells of chlorine and hair gel: before meeting us on this early January afternoon, he has already done a couple of hours in the local swimming pool. We park on the lower slopes and take advantage of the winter sun for the photo shoot.
Bardet reflects on his breakthrough at the 2014 Volta a Catalunya, where he finished fourth ahead of Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. Two years into his professional career, this was the point where he realised that he could be a protagonist.
“With a few kilometres to go, there were seven of us in the favourites’ group, all looking at each other. It’s this kind of opportunity that I have to take. And I was like,” he inhales deeply, as if calming himself, “‘Okay Romain, that’s very good, you are still with the best, just try to keep your position.
“That’s not the kind of racing I should be doing. I have to race like Dan Martin, to take risks. But 2014 was not a question of that: I was surprised to still be there. And I didn’t know what to do.”
Confidence and circumspection
Bardet knows what he wants to do. He relishes taking the initiative in races. A helix-like succession of downhill twists, that suppressed gasp from a rival in overdrive, the imperceptible change in gradient? All possible triggers for his ambush.
While swapping some free spirit for circumspection is a necessary evil of racing for the general classification at a Grand Tour, his is the ideal attitude for hilly one-day races. So, for French media obsessing over the Tour, here’s a happy little truth.
“I’m closer to winning a Classic than a Grand Tour,” Bardet says. “Nibali was much better than me in last year ’s Tour. But I was really close to following the last group in Lombardia. I made a small mistake at the bottom of the climb, so I couldn’t close the gap at the top.
“It’s all about confidence in myself. Last year I was not sure if it was my place to be there. There were a lot of things that were new, I’ve learned a lot and I think I’m ready to take this opportunity to try and be great, not just good.”
Bardet relishes sacrifice. Several peers suggest that Bardet is sometimes professional to a fault, that he goes too far. His coach Jean-Baptiste Quiclet initially had to tell him to ease off in training because he always went too hard.
Quiclet relates a story from Ag2r-La Mondiale’s winter training camp in southern Spain. “I got up for training and Romain was gone. The group was meeting at ten, he had left at nine: he had seen the planned training wasn’t quite tough enough and taken the chance to add to it. That symbolises his character: he’s never content with what he has achieved.”
This is still just the beginning too. At 25, he knows his peak ought to be years away. Yet he is always striving for improvements.
“I look at the numbers when I do a specific session and I like to know if they are better than last year, than last week,” Bardet says. He smiles. “Sometimes that’s a problem. You can’t always do better every season.”
His gains will become more incremental as the results improve and expectation rises. “I was really delighted to receive a message from Philippe Gilbert who said ‘I hope that you can improve the way you did last year’. I said it’s impossible. I know that, but I try to do little things to be better,” he says.
“I’m not just chasing numbers, I’m chasing the feeling, the feeling of the best days. It’s paradoxical: I like the pleasures in life, like drinking good wine and eating good food. But they are like rewards rather than goals in themselves. I don’t take any pleasure [in them] if I don’t deserve them.”
Bardet may sound like a very serious young man, but there is a dark humour and a regular 25-year-old underneath too. It’s just that when it comes to cycling, he means business and simply cannot countenance not getting the absolute best out of himself.
Is he a perfectionist? “I guess I am – but who isn’t if you want to perform right now in modern cycling?”
How much further can Bardet go? In an early interview, when asked to describe himself in one word, Bardet opted for persévérant. It brings to mind something he says in Clermont-Ferrand, comparing himself and his fellow up-and-coming talents to their generation’s talisman.
“I know very well that Nairo Quintana has really become a prodigious rider, and I’m far away from this in the mountains. But nothing is impossible. We will see when we’re at 28 or 29. Maybe our brilliant years are still in front of us.”
This is an edited extract from “The Romain Empire,” which appeared in issue 56 of Rouleur Magazine in July 2015.