DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - The Tour de France has not had a home champion since 1985, but after Romain Bardet’s second-placed finish last year there are high hopes that the wine-loving 26-year-old could be sipping champagne on the Champs Elysees in three weeks’ time.
The AG2R-La Mondiale rider is one of the most attack-minded in the peloton and is likely to find this year’s route, which Bardet describes as “quite treacherous”, to his taste.
With only four summit finishes, it favours long-range attacks and features only two short time trials.
This, he says, could throw the race wide open, but he is certainly not getting carried away about his own chances.
“Anything is possible -- in one way or another,” Bardet, who was also sixth overall in 2014, told Reuters.
“I take a very modest approach, I will rely on my strengths and the final placing does not matter.”
The Frenchman, who enjoys tasting wines from the Rhone valley and the Languedoc region, has had a difficult start to the season, after being thrown out of the Paris-Nice stage race for taking an illegal tow from a team car.
That forced him to change his schedule and switch focus to the Tour of Catalunya instead. He is adamant, however, that it did not disrupt his preparations.
“It’s part of a high-level athlete’s life. It actually made me tougher, I challenged myself,” he said.
Bardet geared up nicely for the Tour de France, which runs from July 1-23, by finishing sixth overall in the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month, showing great form in the mountains after losing ground in the time trial.
Bardet, who is as softly-spoken as he is wildly aggressive on the bike, said the week-long warm-up offered few clues as to how he will get on in the Tour.
“I’m very well and very much looking forward to taking part in my fifth Tour de France. I have been resting and training well since the Dauphine,” he said.
“But things can change between June and mid-July.”
Bardet said his team, with Swiss Mathias Frank, eighth overall on the Tour in 2015, and France’s Pierre Latour, who won a Vuelta stage last year, was the strongest he had ever had around him.
He will, however, be deprived of the services of ‘domestique de luxe’ and long-time friend Mikael Cherel, who suffered a hairline fracture to his pelvis during a training camp.
The duo launched a decisive attack on a wet descent in the Tour last year that put Bardet up to second overall.
Bardet will be expected to make a similar move in the dangerous descent from the Mont du Chat this year, after a punishing climb towards the end of the ninth stage.
The same descent featured on the Dauphine route this year.
French cycling fans have high expectations of Bardet, who is among the favourites for overall victory.
With Thibaut Pinot, who was third overall in 2014, targeting stage wins after a gruelling Giro d‘Italia, Bardet is the only realistic hope of French success this time around.
He is not, however, feeling the pressure of attempting to become France’s first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault 32 years ago.
“I don’t mind the pressure, I’ve had it since I started the Tour,” he said.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis