In the vast tasting room of London wine importer Mentzendorff, several bottles of choice wine are stacked beside a large wooden table. Halfway through the tasting, two experts are deep in conversation, glass in hand: general manager Andrew Hawes, himself a cycling enthusiast and former teenage opponent of Sean Yates, and Romain Bardet.
The Pinot on their lips is Noir rather than fellow countryman Thibaut; they become sincere about Sancerre. Beyond the merits of certain grape varieties, the vinophile Bardet also asks for temperature advice for the high-tech cellar he is building at home. The Frenchman dedicated his life to cyclingyet he always enjoyed the outside world, be it biathlon, business or oenology.
Wine and cycling share many similarities; both are seasonal endeavors that require months of hard work behind the scenes and careful cultivation in hopes of special results. Then there is sharing land, geography and culture. His ex-teammates Clément Chévrier and Axel Domont are other appreciators, evolving in the industry as sommelier and winemaker, respectively.
In town for Rouleur Live, the slender climber is dressed appropriately on this November afternoon, but he’s a man for all seasons. Months earlier, he was stomping grapes, barefoot in a wooden tank, helping a friend make his wine. During years of tasting and building his collection, he saw every step of the process, from vine to bottle.
A change of air
You could make the same comparison for his cycling career. After nine years at Ag2r-La Mondiale, during which he went from tadpole to Tour contender and talisman, he joined Team DSM at the end of 2020. It brought a welcome change of scenery. “You enter a comfortable, routine state,” Bardet says. “I think to get the best out of yourself, that kind of comfort isn’t really what you need. At some point, I need people who really tell me what’s good and what’s wrong. do not go.
Bardet’s fluent English shows no signs of Australian inflection, although he gets on particularly well with Jai Hindley and Chris Hamilton. “He’s one of the most underrated teammates you can have,” he says of Hamilton. “He is super strong in the mountains, I told him that I already knew him before joining the team.”
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Hamilton is a kindred spirit, building a Vespa, busy with other areas of life and ready for occasional off-day outings with Bardet. “I was more and more upset by the hotel rooms, lying on the bed and doing nothing,” says the man from Brioude. “You can go to beautiful places in cycling but sometimes… I don’t know if it’s lazy or professional, but some guys don’t want to do anything. I like to have a coffee or a beer somewhere if I know a place. This convivial image is rather in contradiction with image of Team DSM as a strict dietafter a series of high-profile departures.
It’s the dad
As he talks, two-year-old Angus babbles, plays with miniature VW cars and red London buses in the arms of his mother Amandine. (They chose the Gaelic name because Bardet is a fan of indie musician Angus Stone – and he remembered his childhood as one of many Roman garden variety at school). How has his birth in February 2020 affected his life? “Honestly, it was a game changer. Before, if I failed in a race, I felt like it could be the end of the world,” he says.
I saw this first hand. After Il Lombardia 2018, Bardet sat on the shores of Lake Como, his wife sympathizing with him after a DNF. I did not approach for a comment: it interrupted a personal, private moment and moreover, his discouraged appearance said everything.
The thirst for success still burns in Bardet, but now he is more optimistic, backed by a team with a similar approach. “Now I feel more relaxed. [Team general manager] Iwan Spekenbrink came to me and said ‘we want you in the team, we’ll try to do everything right but at the end of the day, if you don’t win, it’s okay… we we don’t need you to win, we just need you to be the best you can be. In the end, if you don’t win, it’s just a bike race. From the boss himself,” says Bardet, approvingly.
It’s a different mindset than he’s seen in France: “The boss thinks all the riders are trying to kick them: take the salary and do as little as possible. The team leaders are like ‘we really have to push the driver because he’s taking things a little too easy.’ »
Regular but realistic
Under his new team colours, 2021 has been one of Bardet’s most consistent seasons. He finished in the top 10 in five of his six stage races, including seventh at the Giro d’Italia. The outlier was the Vuelta a España where he lost time with a serious crash but went on the offensive to win the stage at Pico Villuercas memorably on offense. (Pure Bardet: Think also of his three Tour stage wins, especially the 2015 attack on the Glandon. He doesn’t win often, but when he does, it’s with breakaway panache. )
Yet he grimaces at the mention of such consistency. “The thing is, I don’t take much pleasure in making a top ten,” he says. Although he recognizes that it is important for the team, the fact is that he is running to win.
Bardet is encouraged that his physiological numbers are now higher than when he finished second in the 2014 Tour against Vincenzo Nibali. “It’s mainly what keeps me going,” he says. “Not a lot [higher], maybe one percent a year… When Roglič and Pogačar are really at their best, I can’t keep up with them. It’s like that. It’s okay with me. I realize some guys just go faster.
“But I was still happy in Lombardia [where he finished eighth], I felt that I was on the same pace as them, which gave me confidence. Basically, over 30 minutes, in 2014 and 2015, if you could do more than 6 watts per kilogram, you would be in the top three or five. Now you need to do 6.3, 6.4.
“I was really depressed at the end of the Giro stage [19 to Alpe di Mera] when I finished tenth, with Carthy. It was almost flat, then a straight uphill. I lost a minute and a half against Simon Yates – and I had my best performance of the year. But the team was really happy with me. They said ‘you did your best, what can we do? We can’t control how fast they were going.
End of the Roman Empire
Winter has passed. If the snow in his native Clermont-Ferrand gets too deep for mountain bike forays, he hits Zwift. No doubt this led Bardet to reflect on the passage of time. Turning 31 in November, he is entering his eleventh year as a professional cyclist. “I think the first time people and the press start talking about me as an old man, it will cause me problems,” he smiles.
“As long as I can be really competitive on the bike, like being able to win a Monument, compete for stage wins and maybe a podium in a Grand Tour, and I’ve found a good sporting project, I can continue. But to be realistic I give myself maybe two years I think 2024 will be the last call – maybe next year… I know what it takes, I know how hard wins are to get it now. I don’t want to stay just for the comfort of the situation.
“Honestly, my perfect retirement plan would be to do two years of gravel racing, traveling with the family for six months in the United States,” he adds. A glimpse of his off-road abilities came when Bardet finished eleventh at the Roc d’Azur, the day after Il Lombardia 2021. He certainly has the stamina to challenge – and he’s also the man who brings excellent bottles of wine at post-race barbecues.
I saw Bardet at different stages of his career. Like the voracious youngster who carried the weight of the French sports world on his shoulders in 2014; Rouleur’s thoughtful columnist exposing the importance of balance and the art of descending, who couldn’t contain his joy at his wife’s pregnancy on the phone three years later.
As we finish the tasting and discuss his life, it’s clear that this is the happiest and most balanced version – and it has nothing to do with the excellent wine or the restorative effect of the truce winter. Appropriately, the red London buses Angus played with are neatly lined up on the table in the tasting room as the Bardet family step out into the cold night.
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