The French cycling renaissance has created one of the most popular, in terms of spectator participation, Tours in recent history as the massive roadside crowds attest, and no rider has excited the French population more than young Roman Bardet. Second in Paris last year at a whopping 4’ 05” to Chris Froome, the young man from the deep countryside of Auvergne represents a rare figure of joy to that rapidly aging and depopulating area.
He’s what the French love in a road racer: great descender, exciting climber and unpredictable in his tactics, not afraid to throw caution to the wind when he senses an opening. His moments of improvisation give his team director Vincent Lavenu – an old racing friend of mine and a most conservative and careful man – ulcers.
AG2R La Mondial, a modestly funded yet modern organization that adheres to a strong set of ethics, very much the Cannondale-Drapac of France, has meticulously prepared this Tour and especially this final week. The addition of Belgian Champion Oliver Naesen, brought on for his typical Flemish flatlander skill sets seems now a stroke of organizational genius as it was Naesen who singlehandedly saved Bardet’s Tour yesterday in the crosswind wars. An altitude training specialist had the Frenchman attend an 18-day, 3000 meter high training camp in in southern Spain’s Sierra Nevadas this May, riding 1300 kilometers and climbing a total of 2700 meters over the period. All of this, including a subpar performance at the post-camp Dauphine, aimed at achieving peak form this week.
Their bicycle supplier, the little known Factor, an offshoot of an F1 company, turns out to be a joint project of Stuart O’Grady and Robert Millar who advise Bardet on position and training. The bikes, with their CeramicSpeed kit, including the famed oversized derailleur pulley wheels and Shimano Di2 and, with a nod to the home country, Mavic wheels, must be a morale builder for the team and a sign of the above-stated modernity of the team.
The truth will come out today in the Tour and I wonder how many of you out there are playing hooky today and tomorrow to watch the Alps which provide the most magnificent backdrop and drama of any sport in the world.