The Grande Boucle is a whirlwind of sound and fury. In this traveling circus, silence is a luxury. Sitting on the wild grass, Romain Bardet takes advantage of a rare moment this July 13 at the Granon pass, a terrible but grandiose epilogue to the 11th stage of this Tour de France 2022. This moment stretches over several minutes and freezes an image , that of a runner exhausted but soothed by the effort.

There is 2nd place in the general classification of course, the good operation he has just carried out, but the essential is elsewhere. At 31, the Frenchman from the Dutch team Team DSM finally seems at peace with himself, in his place, in this race where he has long worn the mask of seriousness, as if crushed by his own demands and everyone’s expectations. a country.

“When Romain looks at the view below, it reminds me of our training sessions, when we stopped to enjoy the scenery and chat,” observes Clément Chevrier. Former team member at AG2R (2017-2020), the young retiree of the peloton shares with his friend the taste of good bottles; he even made it his profession, after studying oenology.

Clément Chevrier knows his “Romain” and appreciates seeing him performing and above all fulfilled at the start of this third week, in ambush for the final podium (before the 16th stage, Tuesday July 19, Romain Bardet is 4th, 18 seconds from 3rd, Geraint Thomas). “He was happy to be at the start of the Tour. Before, he was already a little mentally worn out. At AG2R, everything was focused on these three weeks of July: the season, the contracts, the sponsor investment… and it tensed everyone in the team. Roman the first. »

Romain Bardet does not spit in the soup of the Tour. She fed him, allows him to live well, he who claims to earn around 50,000 euros net per month. But the child from Brioude (Haute-Loire), twice on the final podium in Paris (2nd in 2016, 3rd in 2017), had the impression of sacrificing too much, of no longer listening to his desires. For what, ultimately?

In October 2019, he already delivered this observation to Le Monde and also mentioned his desire to shine in Italy, on the Giro. “Everything always brought me back to one event. Buying a baguette, yoghurt, friends back home… “The Tour, the Tour, the Tour…” I was like, “Actually, who am I, if I don’t do the Tour? ” »

No more Bardet “the self-employed”

A health crisis and a jostled calendar later, Romain Bardet gave up this Italian temptation and he left for a Tour in 2020, ended abruptly by a fall on the Auvergne roads during the 13th stage. This cerebral then thinks about the direction to give to the rest of his career, feels the need to “reset”, especially with the birth of his son, Angus, a few months earlier.

This “reset” involves going abroad. He has always wanted to and is fluent in English (and also defends himself in German). In 2021, he joined the Netherlands and the DSM formation. The former Sunweb is renowned for imposing a very strict framework on its runners.

Dutchwoman Ellen van Dijk mentioned “forty-eight protocols to follow” in an interview with Dagblad van het Noorden: “I find it sometimes oppressive that everything is decided for you and you can’t think of anything yourself. »

For the past two seasons, the Swiss Marc Hirschi as well as the Belgians Tiesj Benoot and Ilan Van Wilder have abandoned the structure before the end of their contract for a better salary elsewhere, but also for a little more freedom.

Romain Bardet finds his happiness there after almost a decade spent at AG2R. “He was a bit self-employed there, he was always in demand and he thought a lot about the decisions to be made, notes Clément Chevrier. He never unplugged. At DSM, he let himself be guided and learned to trust a new structure. This very framed side suits him well. »

The person concerned does not contradict his friend. “I wanted to get back into a running role. [At AG2R,] I was aware of too many things, too close to people,” he told Pédale magazine! early June. In this very long interview, the modest Romain Bardet splits the armor a little, talks about politics (rather left moderate), wine (Beaujolais), recounts some restless evenings of youth or makes fun of his own image of “a kind of bobo”. , reader of Le Monde diplomatique and listener to France Culture.

To prepare for his ninth Tour, Romain Bardet took his wife and child into his van for ten days of training in Tignes (Savoie), “with a barbecue at the top of a pass, like a vacation”. The idea was to turn the page on his abandonment, in May (due to gastroenteritis), in a Giro where a victory was within his reach and to approach July with the maximum of mental freshness. “I’m back from vacation, so I’m fresh as a roach,” he joked during the big start of the Tour in Copenhagen.

“He’s more relaxed”

Before attacking the crossing of the Pyrenees, Wednesday, July 20, the leader of the DSM is a little less fresh. The Alps and the heat wave tire the runners. On the road to Mende (Lozère), Saturday July 16, he took a little heat in the “montée Jalabert” during the 14th stage; he spoke of “burning legs”.

A few minutes later, the Auvergnat put on his refrigerated jacket and, under the awning of his team bus, he climbed on his home trainer to eliminate toxins by “turning” his legs. He even took the time to joke and hear from a former colleague, the American Ian Boswell. “I think Romain is more relaxed than a few years ago,” confirms the former British Sky team, who follows the race for “The Cycling Podcast”. I think it does him good to be in a foreign team, he is a little less in demand and runs his course in his corner. »

Romain Bardet enjoys being in a fight with Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar, even if he recognizes the superiority of the Dane and the Slovenian in the mountains. From Pogacar, he waits for him to dynamite the passage in the Pyrenees. “I know he won’t want to be 2nd in the Tour de France,” he said.

Clément Chevrier already hopes to discuss it around a good vintage. “Romain likes it when the stages are tough and it goes all over the place,” says his friend. Its main quality is resistance. And now a certain form of detachment. Maybe for the best.