In the expansive tasting room of London wine importer Mentzendorff, several choice bottles of wine are stacked next to a broad, circular wooden table. Two experts are deep in conversation, a glass in their hands: managing director Andrew Hawes, himself a keen cyclist and former teenage adversary of Sean Yates, and Romain Bardet.
The Pinot on their lips is noir rather than his compatriot Thibaut; they are getting sincere about Sancerre. Beyond the merits of certain grapes, vinophile Bardet is also asking for temperature advice for the hi-tech cellar he is building at home. The Frenchman has dedicated his life to cycling, yet he’s always appreciated the world outside it, be it biathlon, business or oenology.
Wine and cycling share a lot of similarities; they’re both seasonal endeavours that demand months of hard work behind the scenes and careful cultivation in the hope of special results. Then there’s the shared terroir, geography and culture. His ex team-mates Clement Chévrier and Axel Domont are fellow appreciators, moving into the industry as a sommelier and winemaker, respectively.
In town for the Rouleur Live show, the willowy climber is dressed the part on this November afternoon, but he’s a man for all seasons. Months earlier, he was stomping on grapes, bare-footed in a wooden tank, helping a friend make his own vin. During years of tasting and building his collection, he’s seen every bit of the process, from the vine to the bottle.
A change of air
You could make the same comparison for his cycling career. After nine years at Ag2r-La Mondiale, in which he went from tadpole to Tour contender and talisman, he joined Team DSM in late 2020. It provided a welcome change of air. “You get into a state of comfort, routine,” Bardet says. “I think to get the best out of yourself, this kind of comfort is not really what you need. At some point, I need people who really say to me what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Bardet’s fluent English shows no signs of Aussie inflection, despite getting on particularly well with the likes of Jai Hindley and Chris Hamilton there. “He’s one of the most underrated team-mates you can have,” he says of Hamilton. “He’s super strong in the mountains, I told him I already knew of him before joining the team.”
Hamilton is a kindred spirit, building a Vespa, busy in other areas of life and up for occasional rest day sorties with Bardet. “I got more and more upset with hotel rooms, just lying on the bed and doing nothing,” the man from Brioude says. “You can go to some nice places in cycling but sometimes… I don’t know if it’s about being lazy or professional, but some of the guys don’t want to do anything. I like having a coffee or a beer somewhere if I know a place.” That convivial image is rather at odds with the image of Team DSM as a strict regime, following a string of high-profile departures.
He’s the daddy
As he talks, his two-year-old Angus babbles, playing with toy 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 a garden variety Romain among many at school). How did his birth in February 2020 affect his life? “Honestly, it was a game changer. Before, if I failed in a race, it felt like it could be the end of the world,” he says.
I’ve seen this firsthand. After Il Lombardia 2018, Bardet was sat by the shores of Lake Como, his wife commiserating with him after a DNF. I didn’t approach for comment: it was interrupting a personal, private moment and besides, his crestfallen appearance said it all.
The hunger for success still burns in Bardet, but now he is more sanguine, supported 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, that’s ok… we don’t need you to win, we just need you to be the best you can be. At the end of the day, if you don’t win, it’s just a bike race.’ From the boss himself,” Bardet says, approvingly.
It’s a different mindset to the one he saw in France. “The boss thinks all the riders are trying to kick them: taking the salary and doing as little as possible. The team managers are like ‘we need to really push the rider because he’s taking it a bit too easy.’”
Regular but realistic
In his new team colours, 2021 was one of Bardet’s most consistent seasons. He finished top-10 in five of his six stage races, including seventh place 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 to Pico Villuercas in memorable attacking fashion. (Pure Bardet: think of his three Tour stage wins too, especially 2015’s attack up and over the Glandon. He doesn’t win often, but when he does, it’s with breakaway panache.)
Yet he pulls a face at the mention of such consistency. “The thing is, I don’t take much joy from doing a top ten,” he says. While he acknowledges it’s important for the team, the point is that he races to win.
Bardet is buoyed by the fact that his physiological numbers now are higher than when he finished second in the 2014 Tour to Vincenzo Nibali. “That’s mainly what keeps me going,” he says. “Not much [higher], maybe one per cent a year … When Roglič and Pogačar are really at their best, I can’t keep up with them. That’s just the way it is. I’m fine with it. I realise some guys just go faster.”
“But I was still happy at Lombardia [where he finished eighth], I felt I was on the same pace as them, which gave me confidence. Basically, over 30 minutes, in 2014 and ‘15, if you could do over 6 watts per kilogram, you’d be among the three or five best. Now, you have to do 6.3, 6.4.”
“I got 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 one straight climb. I lost one minute thirty to Simon Yates – and I did 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 Romain empire
Winter has flown by. If snow in his native Clermont-Ferrand gets too deep for mountain bike forays, he hits the turbo trainer. No doubt the start of a new season has given cause for Bardet to think about the passage of time. Having turned 31 in November, he is entering his eleventh year as a pro cyclist. “I think the first time people and the press start talking about me as an old guy will cause me some trouble,” he says, smiling.
“As long as I can be really competitive on the bike, like being able to win a Monument, competing 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 the wins are to get now. I don’t want to just stay for the comfort of the situation.”
“Honestly, my perfect plan for retirement would be doing two years in gravel racing, travelling with the family for six months to the US,” he adds. A glimpse of his off-road ability came when Bardet finished eleventh at Roc d’Azur, the day after the 2021 Il Lombardia. He certainly has the stamina to challenge – and he’s the man to bring along some excellent bottles of wine to the post-race barbecues too.
I’ve seen Bardet at various stages of his career. As the voracious youngster with the weight of the French sporting world on his shoulders in 2014; the reflective Rouleur columnist expounding on the importance of balance and the art of descending, who couldn’t contain his delight at his wife’s pregnancy over the phone five years later.
As we finish the tasting and chat about his life, it’s clear that this is the most contented, balanced version. And it has nothing to do with the excellent wine or the restorative effect of the winter break. Appropriately, the red London buses that Angus was playing with are neatly lined up on the tasting room table as the Bardet family step out into the cold night.
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