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Romain’s road: Romain Bardet profile

In-depth
14 Apr 2022
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Cyclist takes French pro Romain Bardet down to our local to talk about change, growth, fatherhood, fear, dreams and wine

Words Joe Robinson Photography Mike Massaro

Can change be a good thing? Romain Bardet leans back in his rickety, village hall-style metal chair, his face brushed by the autumn sun while he muses over the question.

His lips purse as he takes a small sip of pale ale. Before it returns to the ‘Drink Responsibly’ beer mat resting on the table, he offers his reply.

‘Yes, I think it is.’ He pauses to think some more and takes another short swig as if the golden liquid contains the answer he is looking for. ‘You have to change for a reason, but when you spend a long time with the same team, the same people, the same environment, you may forget to continue challenging yourself.’

 

At the beginning of 2021, Bardet made the biggest change in his life so far. He left the warm bosom of AG2R-La Mondiale, the French team he had been with since turning pro in 2012, for pastures new at German-registered, Dutch-based Team DSM.

After nine years and two Tour de France podiums, the then-30-year-old decided it was time to close the current chapter of his career in search of a new challenge. Why?

Weight of expectation

From the age of 21, Bardet had been AG2R’s golden boy. He was a French rider at a French team racing to win the Tour de France, and by coming second in 2016 he achieved the nation’s joint-best result at the race since 1985.

Leadership was bestowed upon Bardet from an early age, and with that came expectation – not only to win races and to win the Tour, but also to be the team’s poster boy. Yet while he appreciated the responsibility and the bonds that it helped him forge while racing in brown and blue, heavy was the head that wore the crown.

‘It was a big change for me, leaving AG2R,’ Bardet admits to Cyclist as he sinks further into his chair. ‘It’s a really common expression but it truly was taking me out of my comfort zone because AG2R was like my family.

‘But what matters? Results. How many victories I can earn and how much of an impact I can have on a race and within a team. For sure, I am proud of my history at AG2R but I realised I needed something new. I needed a change of scenery and people around me that treated me like any other rider, not as “Romain Bardet, the man who came second at the Tour de France”.

‘I felt happy to leave the leadership behind. It’s not comfortable for anyone. The way I was treated compared to the other riders was not fair. I had freedom to do my own stuff. And outside of training, my time was always busy focussing on leading AG2R, thinking about future training camps, looking forward to races, and how we could improve the team’s performance. I was heavily involved in that side of things.

‘When I met with DSM for the first time, I put my cards on the table and said I wanted no additional privilege or respect, I just wanted to be a rider for Team DSM. I am just one rider. I’m not special. I wanted to feel like I was starting again as a neo-pro.’

Except Bardet is not just any other rider. He has been one of the best Grand Tour racers of the last decade and DSM were fully aware of the asset they were investing in. The difference now is that rather than the sole focus for him being the Tour de France, DSM is putting emphasis on developing Bardet as a more rounded rider.

‘I can be a paradoxical person. I am the kind of guy who likes freedom, breaking the routine, but from a racing aspect, from a performance point of view, I want no compromises; I want structure and Team DSM take care of this, making my life easier than the past,’ Bardet says.

‘There is less you can do outside of the team, but for me it is absolutely crazy to think you can have your own trainer or coach or nutritionist. This is 2022. With our sport’s past, the doping scandals, it’s better to have everything controlled within the team.

‘We are one of the only team sports where the team can be from all over the world and living in completely different places. At least with Team DSM’s method, you feel like you are part of the team, otherwise you just arrive at the race, pull on the jersey and remain an individual.

‘The team has confidence in me and a plan for me to develop. They think they can make me a better, stronger rider. Also, to be honest, there was really no other team that shared my values and ethics in the pro peloton. I wanted to find a place where I could become the best rider I could be and I was 100 per cent convinced that Team DSM was the place for this and I’m not disappointed.’

This rigid, uncompromising system employed by the team and its manager, Iwan Spekenbrink, doesn’t suit everyone. Michael Matthews, Warren Barguil, Tiesj Benoot and Jai Hindley are among those to have left their contracts early after having reached a reported impasse with the team’s strict methods.

But for Bardet, so far it is working. The structure gives him clarity and with that comes the freedom to improve. It’s also allowing him to explore avenues in his career that were previously closed. 

For the first time since 2013, Bardet skipped the Tour de France in 2021 in favour of making his debut at the Giro d’Italia, where he finished seventh on GC. Bypassing the Tour was never an option at AG2R and typified the expectations placed upon Bardet’s shoulders.

Now, away from a French team, he is no longer shackled to the dream of winning the maillot jaune, something that Bardet had long realised was just that: a dream.

‘I think I can still be a really good animator in a three-week race but I no longer want to wake up and think, “My career is a failure because I haven’t won the Tour de France.” There is more chance that it will never happen so I now approach Grand Tours not with the thought of winning, but of producing the best performance I can.

‘You need to take happiness from what you are doing every day. If you only focus on the result or the idea of winning the Tour, I don’t think you can ever really be successful.’

More to life than cycling

Fatherhood has also changed Bardet’s life. In February 2020, Romain and his wife Amandine welcomed their son Angus into the world. While he was at AG2R, Bardet saw the concept of fatherhood as nothing but a pipedream. Three or four years ago he would often speak to his closest friends about whether he would ever be able to balance being a parent and a professional cyclist.

Now at Team DSM and with the burden of responsibility lifted, Bardet has been able to embrace becoming a father and the life that awaits him beyond two wheels.

‘In 2020, when racing stopped because of Covid, it was actually perfect because I got more time with my son,’ he says. ‘It’s maybe not fair to say that given what we went through, but on a personal side we got time together we otherwise wouldn’t. I would normally be away for 200 days a year, but I got to see him every day for his first eight, nine months.

‘Fatherhood has also changed how I see bike racing,’ he adds. ‘I now have the ability to switch off from the bike and become something else, a father, which I didn’t do before. You realise that there is something more important and it frees your mind because you are no longer only focussed on being the best rider you can be.

‘But it’s also a paradox, because fatherhood has helped me become more focussed since I am no longer riding for myself, I am riding for someone else.’

The road ahead

Bardet sometimes speaks as if his whole life at AG2R was wedded to making the team and himself better, but in reality Bardet is one of a rare breed of rider in the peloton to have always had one eye on life on the other side.

The average professional cyclist may retire by the age of 35 and few – even among the very best – earn enough money to never have to work another day in their lives. For most cyclists, at 35 their real life is only just beginning and yet the only job they will have ever known is riding a bike.

Their life experience outside that pursuit will be minimal, and with riders turning professional younger and younger, this is a problem that is only worsening. In fact, Bardet believes this could be the next major issue for pro cycling.

‘My agent tells me it is becoming more and more common that junior riders now have agents. Pro teams are now looking at the junior ranks to sign riders at 17 because they fear missing the next Remco Evenepoel,’ Bardet says.

‘It has to be the responsibility of the business, the teams, to make sure riders are not just leaving school at 17 and then racing their bikes. They need to make sure they have at least two years of a professional background beyond cycling, which makes the concept of development teams like DSM much more important – making sure bike riders have the chance to also get a degree or experience that’s not only the bike, just in case.

‘I will be curious to have this conversation in ten years because I’m not necessarily worried about the situation with Remco, but how many young guys now think they can stop everything at 17, live with their parents and then become the next big pro cyclist?’

A life beyond the bike has never been a problem for Bardet, a man who has always prepared for the next chapter. Before turning pro he gained a business degree from the Grenoble School of Management. He also admits to having lived a ‘classic student lifestyle’, one of going out every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in his first year, attempting to juggle training with hangovers, building a circle of close friends in ‘normal life’ that have since offered an antidote to the loneliness of pro cycling.

Building a life that’s more than just ‘Romain Bardet the cyclist’ has allowed him to feel very secure in his future and not fear what may happen when the chapter of his life titled ‘cycling’ ends.

‘I’ve always thought about my life after cycling. I don’t have a concrete idea what it may be but I know I could stop cycling next year and be OK. I know what I need to be happy in life. I always said that the position I am in now, I am comfortable.

‘I don’t have to care about much as a cyclist. I miss having to think for myself, something you do not do as a pro cyclist. People take care of almost everything. You’re not in control, you’re an actor in a play,’ says Bardet.

‘In normal life that will be a bigger challenge but one I am ready for. I don’t need to stay in pro cycling to keep me happy. I’ll only be here as long as I am competitive. When I realise I can no longer do this, I will stop. I don’t want to be the guy in the peloton just because it’s comfortable.

‘For me, it requires much more to make your retirement a success than just having been a good bike rider. It’s this that makes the idea of life after cycling exciting.’

La vie on roads

Romain Bardet’s career so far

1990: Born 9th November in Brioude, France

2011: Wins stage of Tour de l’Avenir and finishes second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège U23.

2012: Turns pro with AG2R-La Mondiale

2013: Finishes 15th overall on Tour de France debut

2015: Wins Stage 18 of the Tour, finishing 9th overall

2016: Takes 2nd on GC at Tour de France, France’s joint-best result since 1985

2017: Continues Tour streak with 3rd on GC and victory on Stage 12

2018: 2nd at the World Championships and Strade Bianche, 3rd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and 6th at the Tour

2019: Wins King of the Mountains classification at the Tour after losing time on GC battle

2021: Joins Team DSM. Finishes 7th at the Giro d’Italia and wins Stage 14 at the Vuelta

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Desert Island Disc Wheels

Just like the famous radio show, if Romain Bardet was sent to a desert island, what would he take with him?

Song 

‘I would take good French songs, something like ‘One More Time’ by Daft Punk. Then a song or two by Angus and Julius Stone – they are an Australian group. And finally a few tracks from a band called Phoenix. They are an indie pop band from Versailles, near Paris, but are quite big in America.’

Book 

‘It’s a tough question. I wouldn’t go for a French classic like Sartre. I really like the ideas of the Greek philosophers. I find some insights into life from them that are still relevant today so maybe I’d choose work by Socrates.’

Luxury item

‘The item I would take would be a bottle of red wine that is constantly refilled.’

Bardet’s pub quiz

What does Romain think of The King & Queen, a traditional London boozer and Cyclist’s local?

‘It’s good when you’re in the centre of a city like London and you can still find places like this,’ Bardet says. ‘It’s quite a thing to see – a place for locals. It’s good. The years pass by, but the pub remains the same.

‘In France it’s more like bistros selling shit beers. At home I’m always looking for good wine because I’m pretty interested in natural wine, unfiltered with less process. Ninety-five per cent of the places you visit will not have this stuff. Beyond that, we have the classics like Burgundy and Bordeaux, but for me I really like Beaujolais. It’s highly drinkable. I never visit a restaurant in France without having a glass of wine. In the UK, however, I’ll have a beer.’