And so, France’s long wait for a Grand Tour victory continues. Romain Bardet wasn’t necessarily going to win this Giro. But his performances on Mount Etna and Blockhaus caught the imagination and propelled the Frenchman up into third place in the standings at the halfway point of the race.
Fresh from winning the recent Tour of the Alps, Bardet was in the form of his life. Or, at the very least, his best form since those back-to-back podiums in the Tour de France in 2016 and 2017. Just 14 seconds off the race summit, the 31-year-old was keeping up with his principal rivals in the mountains and was in with a great shot at taking over the pink jersey currently covering the slender shoulders of Spanish rookie, Juan Pedro Lopez.
What’s more, Bardet looked to be enjoying his cycling again. Ever since he escaped the goldfish bowl of life on a French WorldTour team, Bardet has seemed more relaxed and happier in his shell, as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his back. Where others have struggled to fit in, he’s taken to life at Team DSM like a hand in a silk glove – or, at the very least, like Bradley Wiggins to the back of a motorbike.
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On Wednesday he even took over impromptu leadout duties to help slingshot young teammate Alberto Dainese to glory in Reggio Emilia as the 24-year-old Italian ended the host nation’s long wait for a stage win.
France’s long wait for a Grand Tour win has been even longer. Not since Laurent Jalabert in the 1995 Vuelta a Espana has one of cycling’s main hinterlands topped the general classification in one of cycling’s three major stage races. You have to go back a further six years to Laurent Fignon’s win in the 1989 Giro d’Italia – and another four years to Bernard Hinault being the last man to wear the Tour’s maillot jaune in Paris.

‘They played with fire’ – Demare denies Cavendish, breakaway to seal hat-trick

France are hardly paupers in other domains. In Julian Alaphilippe they have the reigning double world champion who has won the Tour’s polka dot jersey and who came within two days of an unlikely Tour win in 2019; in Warren Barguil they have another fairly recent king of the mountain who famously won atop the Col d’Izoard in polka dots on Bastille Day; and in Arnaud Demare they have not only this Giro's best sprinter but someone who, like Alaphilippe three years later, won one of cycling’s Monuments on the via Roma at Sanremo.
When the Giro rolled down the same via Roma and through the same seaside town on the Ligurian coast on Friday, only Bardet’s teammates and colleagues at DSM were aware of the Frenchman’s illness. Since helping Dainese to his win, Bardet has been struggling with an ailment that kept him up all night prior to the short 150km ride to Cuneo.
DSM had disguised their leader’s condition so well that when Bardet’s name popped up on a graphic as a withdrawal during the stage, chief commentator Rob Hatch assumed it was a mistake. But as the day’s five-man break stretched out their six-minute lead over the pack on the Colle di Nava, live images soon showed the stricken Bardet in his team car. Moments later, Wiggins himself recorded a video of Bardet struggling to stand up as he changed cars and coughed up bile in a layby.
In Bardet’s absence, his DSM team contributed to the lively chase as they hoped Dainese could perhaps provide a morale-boosting silver lining to the cloud left by their leader’s withdrawal. But once the last four riders of the break were swept up inside the final kilometre, it was that man Demare who sprinted to a third win on the race while Dainese – without his emergency leadout man Bardet – settled for fifth.

‘Struggling to stand up!’ – Watch the moment Bardet abandoned after being ‘sick all night’

For Bardet’s compatriot, team-mate and namesake, Romain Combaud, it was too much. The 31-year-old Grand Tour debutant, Bardet’s roommate on this Giro, buried himself for Dainese and, at the finish, the emotion got the better of him as he broke down in tears.
"It’s been a tough day,” a distressed Combaud said as he tried to compose himself. “Romain has been ill since yesterday. Today it was just too much for him. It p***es me off – I’m sorry to say that on TV, but I'm very emotional. He's a friend, a very good guy on the bike. He will bounce back because he's a great champion.
“My role was to stay with him today and we were hoping that it would pass and he could recover ahead of this weekend. Romain had been really strong for the past 12 days but the illness and the heat and his stomach were too much.”
Asked whether he had lost more than a team-mate on Friday, Combaud said: “For sure. We were hoping for big things on this Giro before we came. He was more than ready. Today hurts but we have to bounce back.”

‘Just too much’ – Combaud breaks down in tears discussing Bardet

And so it came to be that on a day Frenchman Demare proved himself to be the best sprinter in this race with his seventh win in three years on the Giro all but securing another maglia ciclamino, his compatriot Bardet checked out of the fight for the maglia rosa through no fault of his own.
Bardet’s plight recalls his withdrawal of the 2020 Tour de France when he crashed on his local roads in the Massif Central and was forced out while sitting in fourth place on the standings.
Fourth place was where Bardet lurked on the Giro GC on Friday morning before the cruel twist of fate. We have no idea how he would have fared against the likes of Richard Carapaz and Mikel Landa during the mountainous tests to come – but his presence in the GC battle as the Giro headed into its final decisive phase was exciting for all followers of the sport, not simply those ever-suffering French fans for whom the wait now continues.

‘He couldn’t eat, he was awake all night’ – Bardet hailed as a ‘fighter’ after abandoning

Bardet and his fellow climber Thibaut Pinot were once the great hopes of French cycling – two stylish but brittle riders capable of winning big and who both soared to podium finishes on the Tour during Chris Froome’s years of dominance.
How cruel that now the British rider’s reign has well and truly ended, both French stars have struggled to assert their grip on races that, on their day, they are clearly capable of winning.
Both riders have enjoyed riding the Giro in recent years away from the French media glare and the suffocating expectation that comes from the host nation during July’s Tour. Pinot took fourth place in 2017 and Bardet seventh last year – results considerably better than showings in other Grand Tours for quite some time.
After finishing ahead of favourites Carapaz and Landa on last weekend’s summit finish at Blockhaus, Bardet laid down his credentials as one of the big favourites for the pink jersey – credentials which, sadly, now lie in the side of the road on the Colle di Nava after being coughed up and spat out by a rider floored once again by misfortune at the very moment that he looked his most dangerous.

‘Shocking news!’ - Bardet abandons the Giro

French hopes now switch to Guillaume Martin of Cofidis, who rose to fifth place after his compatriot's withdrawal and who is only 28 seconds down on Lopez in the standings. But the 28-year-old Martin is not the same calibre of rider as Bardet: his high position in the GC came after infiltrating a break on the stage to Naples and he has never won a Grand Tour stage before.
Martin may have to choose between a top 10 finish in Verona or losing time in order to have a chance of winning a stage. But Bardet had the legs to push Carapaz, Landa, Lopez and Joao Almeida all the way. His departure certainly means the race will lack its most respectable gentleman in Verona.
Au revoir, Romain. You’ll be sorely missed.
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