‘The Best Frenchman in the Tour de France’ is not a title of interest to this future star… After Pierre Rolland in 2011 and Thibaut Pinot in 2012, France delivered a new climber during the 2013 Tour de France: Romain Bardet, 15th overall. More than that, he’s got a brain, a voice, and a story.
(This is a profile that was first published in RIDE #61, September 2013.)
– By Jean-François Quenet
Usually, new stars of the Tour de France get lost in the following few weeks. They travel to crits, forget about their diet, go nuts because of being courted by many people including the most gorgeous of girls… but it was different for the best Frenchman in the 100th edition. Romain Bardet was 15th in the Tour. He won the four-day Tour de l’Ain in mid-August (2013). Although the race had been led by Belkin’s duo formed of ‘TJ’ Slagter and Luis Léon Sanchez, Bardet moved up from fourth to first – and sealed his GC victory – on the final day.
The winning move came in stage four, up and over the Col du Grand Colombier. It came as a relief for the young AG2R La Mondiale rider who has attracted a lot of press in France since joining the WorldTour squad at the start of 2012. He escaped solo in both the Amstel Gold Race and the Giro di Lombardia last year.
He had a presence in the 2013 Tour de France, his first, but he hadn’t won a pro race. Not yet. And he felt his fame was perhaps a little too generous given what he’d actually achieved. “I was super happy to win the Tour de l’Ain,” he later explained. “I put a lot of pressure on myself with this issue of the first victory. Given that I almost only take part in WorldTour events, I thought it’d be great if I could win this 2.1 race to close a chapter. Now it’s done, even though I didn’t get the joy of raising my arms up in the air.”
He finished second in that final stage behind the Dutch climber from Vacansoleil-DCM, Wout Poels. Bardet knows how cycling works… “I had to make a choice.”
The obvious one was to cooperate with Poels and share the cake: give the stage win to the Dutchman and take the overall title for himself. That’s how it goes. You lose some, you win some. It’s sport.
Bardet is a sensitive person. He tends to get irritated by clichés. Not having won a professional race was one such example. To have finished the Tour de France as the highest ranked Frenchman is, to him, one of the worst things that could have happened early in his career. “I don’t race to be the first Frenchman,” he stated before pointing out one of the reasons why. “Either way, it shouldn’t be me.
“I happened to be the one in that position after we lost our team-mate Jean-Christophe Péraud when he crashed during the time trial in the Alps. Unlike me, he was in the top 10 overall at the time of his accident [in stage 17].
“The news of his crash was like the sky falling on our heads and people then began questioning me about being the first Frenchman on GC. The following day, the mood in the team had changed completely: we were over the moon when Christophe Riblon won at L’Alpe d’Huez [stage 18]… and yet people were still asking me about being the first Frenchman on GC! I rode at the front once more en route to Le Grand Bornand [stage 19] because I wanted to make the top 15. That was a real goal to achieve – not first Frenchman, that means nothing for me.”
Ah yes, 15th in his Tour de France debut: that was the result of Gilles Delion back in 1990. As soon as he reached the pro ranks, Bardet was compared to Delion who hailed from Chambéry, came second at the Giro di Lombardia in his first pro year, in 1989, and won the Italian Classic one year later. He was a super talent with an enormous engine but glandular fever affected his career and, most of all, he refused any kind of doping in those years when EPO became the cyclists’ daily bread.
Delion was different from the average professional rider; he was studious and fastidious. His pro road career spanned 1988 to April 1995. He was outspoken and dared speak about things that made him seem like he came from another world in the 1990s. In Cyclisme International in January 1997, for example, Delion stated: “I don’t see the point of winning a bike race thanks to drugs. There’s no pride to take from it. I’m attached to the purity of the sport, otherwise there’s no beauty, no heroism.
“Professionals must be irreproachable.”
The then UCI president at the time, Hein Verbruggen, responded in L’Equipe that same month: “I’m not impressed by testimonies from a rider like Delion who is at the end of his career and can’t follow the peloton anymore. He’s a coward, I don’t have another word for him.”
These days Delion works as a finance manager for Bouygues Construction in Grenoble. He’s a happy father of two. He happens to ride his bike and go to watch the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia on the roadside with friends and family. He’s also a vice-president for Chambéry Cyclisme Formation, the feeder team of AG2R that has a policy to only sign promising riders who pursue their studies at university. That’s where Bardet, originally from Brioude in the Auvergne region, became a pro cyclist, while completing his masters degree in law.
Bardet now does the correspondence course of Grenoble’s business management university. That’s the other “sensitive subject” that he’s not keen to talk much about anymore.
During the Tour, he received a lot of interview requests largely because he was a student/rider. “I hope that I’ll be interviewed as a rider now,” he stated afterwards.
“I’ve let journalists understand that I didn’t want to be treated differently to the other riders. Being also a student is kind of my trademark, but it doesn’t affect my cycling. I’m a cyclist before anything else. I’m not a student who also rides his bike. I study during my free time. I’m okay to talk about it once in a while to underline what’s done at the AG2R La Mondiale development centre, but when I’m asked about it all the time, it becomes embarrassing.”
In 2008, while still riding in the junior ranks, he was introduced to Jérémy Roy who was riding his first Tour de France that year after having been supported by FDJ for a few seasons so that he could complete his studies and become an engineer at the same time he rode as a pro.
Opening his ears and eyes about the passion – his dad’s passion as well – that eventually became his job, Bardet has heard a lot about doping. He has always felt the same as Delion and Roy. “When I was a kid and I watched Michele Bartoli and Frank Vandenbroucke climbing La Redoute, elbow to elbow, at 35km/h, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège… and Vandenbroucke attacking on the climb of Saint-Nicolas using the big chainring, that made me dream,” he recalled.
“Now I feel I’ve been credulous. It gives me headaches to think about it. I wanted to become Bartoli. His class was phenomenal and I know nothing wrong about him but, because of what happened in cycling at the time, all of my culture and education in this sport is vanished. It’s a pity.
“We all know now that Lance Armstrong was reigning over the Tour with artificial methods, it’s a shame and that’s why it’s hard for people to believe what they see now. I’ve found the way Chris Froome has been treated during the Tour absolutely deplorable. He doesn’t deserve to be booed or told to swear that he’s clean all the time. What happened in the 1990s and during Armstrong’s period doesn’t exist anymore. I can guarantee it. Already last year, Thibaut Pinot couldn’t believe that he was able to make the top 10 of the Tour. It was a sign that things had changed. And yes, things have changed positively.”
Bardet is even ready for more transparency. “I’ve heard about the project of putting controls in place during the night,” he continued regarding the topic of doping. “Now we can be controlled from 6.00am to 10.00pm. That means some people might be tempted to do something illegal outside those times. Then, fine, let’s go for the possibility of controls anytime – day or night. Like all riders of my generation, I’m in favour of whatever could reinforce our credibility. Facts already show that the clean-up has been done. There aren’t teams dominating like before.”
When the Frenchman talks about “his” generation, he points out that people born in 1990 are good bike riders! “It would take more than a day talking about all those guys: Peter Sagan, Nairo Quintana, Michal Kwiatkowski, Taylor Phinney, Moreno Moser, Nacer Bouhanni, Pinot…” he listed. “I’ve raced Quintana at the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir [1st: Quintana, 2nd: Andrew Talansky, 3rd: Jarlinson Pantano, 4th: Tom-Jelte Slagter, 5th: Mikel Landa… 6th: Bardet, overall]. And even though he’s the most talented of us, I didn’t imagine Quintana to reach such a high level as second in the Tour de France, not so quickly.
“When Sagan won two stages at Paris-Nice in 2010, I was shocked, in a good sense of the word.
“A week later, I got dropped along with Kwiatkowski during the Classic Loire-Atlantique, and we talked about it. ‘Have you seen what Sagan did?!’ Kwiatkowski had been our executioner in the young categories. He took a bit of time to come of age but he’s doing well now. The leaders of our generation have managed to reach the highest level quicker than I thought. It’s amazing. I didn’t think it’d be possible but that’s another positive signal of the clean-up.”
Delion would have loved to see that happening in the 1990s. When his glandular fever was finally cured in 1995, it was too late. EPO was in widespread use. Contrary to what Verbruggen oddly stated, he wasn’t a coward. He was a clean rider but that just didn’t fit with the UCI president’s view on the sport.
Can Bardet make up for what cheats and politicians have stolen from Delion? AG2R La Mondiale’s manager Vincent Lavenu remains convinced that Delion had the most enormous engine of his time. He’d like to see that Bardet has the same ability but it remains to be seen. One of his assistants, Gilles Mas, has noted something interesting: “Since Alexandre Vinokourov [in 1998], I haven’t seen a neo-pro who is so determined and so attentive to details as Bardet. For 15 years, neo-pros have joined us with the idea that they had already reached the pinnacle – to be a pro – but Bardet is another story. For him, it’s only the beginning.”
The young man rode the Tour de France in preparation for the Tour de l’Ain… and his great future.
– By Jean-François Quenet