Normally at the start of December, Romain Bardet will not long have returned from AG2R La Mondiale’s annual team-building camp in the French Alps. The activities have changed each year - cross-country skiing, curling, wine tasting - but one thing hasn’t: Bardet’s status as the centre of attention.
At times, it seemed almost doting. ‘There goes Romain, what a great skier he is’. ‘Romain, your team wins the cookery competition’.
All that, however, has now changed, and not just because training camps have largely been abandoned due to the pandemic. Bardet is off to pastures new, leaving his home of nine years and joining the German-registered Sunweb team, rebranded on Friday as Team DSM.
It's tempting to see it as the 30-year-old branching out of his comfort zone, but, as he tells Cyclingnews from the launch, that’s not exactly the case.
"I never felt really comfortable in this kind of situation, when everyone is expecting everything from you," he says of the environment at AG2R.
"I’m really proud and really thankful for what that team did for me, and they were absolutely right to do that, because we had some great emotion and success with this way. But, at some point in my career I also need to see new things. Now it’s a totally different scenario."
Indeed, Bardet will join a team whose philosophy prizes the collective over the individual. Palmarès and ego are largely set aside in a heavily structured regime that works for some but constricts others.
There’s a concerning list of riders who’ve ripped up their contracts - Michael Matthews has recently followed in the footsteps of Tom Dumoulin and Warren Barguil - but in the opposite corner there’s a Tour de France display this year where the riders played off each other beautifully and came home with three stage wins.
"For sure, I have the highest exceptions of myself but the fact is, when you don’t think about one specific rider, when you think about the collective, I think it’s a better way to make sure you reach your best," Bardet says.
"So I’m really happy to join a strong collective. It won't be a circle around me, but that was something I was looking for. The key will be being part of this collective, and not the opposite."
Grand Tour plans TBC but Classics a focus
Far from absent-mindedly parroting the values of his new team, Bardet genuinely seems invested in that idea of team spirit. Discussing his race programme for 2021, he revealed he will place an emphasis on the Classics, which, in the three years since his two Tour de France podiums, are arguably where we’ve seen the best of him.
Even if he’s not out to win these races, he sees them as an opportunity to embed himself in his new surroundings.
"It's going to be a really good way to become integrated in the team, by being part of the squad for some Classics, and playing a support role," he says.
"It's a different way of riding for me, and I really like every kilometre of it. When you have no specific expectation in terms of results for yourself, it really frees your spirit to have the eye on the collective. It's a skill I lost quite a bit in the last few years in just targeting stage races, where most of the time you have to be conservative with your tactics."
Bardet is still a Grand Tour rider, and, when it comes to his 2021 programme, of peak interest will be his choice of three-week race, and whether he finally makes his Giro d'Italia debut. That plan was scuppered by the pandemic this year, but, with the Olympics pushed back to next summer, and with a time trial-heavy Tour de France finishing just a week before the Tokyo road race, it’s very much a possibility.
"It’s better for the spirit for the mind at the moment not to have any specific race to target, and just focus on the basics over the winter," Bardet said on Friday, with race schedules to be set out in January.
However, he also acknowledged one of the attractions in joining Sunweb was "having new goals and not just focusing on the Tour like I did for so many years as a French rider on a French team".
Expertise in every area
In the meantime, Bardet will get to work with his new colleagues. In fact, some of that work has already begun, albeit from a distance and over an internet connection.
Whereas Bardet was a driving force in pushing the somewhat old-school AG2R to adopt more modern methods, at Sunweb he’s happy to hand himself over to the expertise of others.
"At this stage of my career, it’s really important to see which aspects I can improve as an athlete. At Sunweb I will find, in every specific area, an expert to talk to. I can use the team’s knowhow to make the best of myself," he says.
"It will be a new way of working, a new way of training, a new coach, a now calendar, It’s a big change for me, but I can expect the very best from every person involved, and I can absolutely trust 100 per cent the people around me. That’s what I was looking for - to be in a structure where all aspects of performance are managed like that."
Time trialling - an Achilles heel that has held Bardet back in the past - stands out as the area where he has the most to gain. However, he insists: "We want to look at the bigger picture."
'Cycling has changed a lot'
It’s only three years since Bardet stood on the podium on the Champs Elysées for the second Tour in a row, but the landscape of professional cycling seems to have shifted dramatically. Sky are no longer the dominant Grand Tour force, and the kids have taken over.
"Things have changed a lot," he says. "For sure, the young guns are very very strong, but I think I’m also improving year after year. I certainly felt stronger this year than when I had my first podium.
"The competition is getting stronger and stronger but I’m quite optimistic I can be there in the fight. I saw that watching the Giro, that there is some room to fight and compete against the very best."
As for whether Bardet’s dreams have changed, the question of whether he can go one better and win the Tour is now seen as irrelevant.
"I don’t want to focus on yellow; I just want to improve first of all as an athlete. Who knows? Maybe it will come without focusing on it, but it’s definitely not the good way for me just to focus on one specific race."
Which brings us back to AG2R, and the decision to do what few big French riders have done before: leave a French team and embark on a new adventure with a foreign squad.
"It was not to run way from pressure, absolutely not, but it was the curiosity to work with best staff possible, to the highest ethical standards, and also challenge myself," he says.
"When a young pro would come to the team they would say ‘Ah there’s Romain, he’s up there’. It’s the other way now. It’s me that’s joining Sunweb. I also have to put myself there, with no guarantees, nothing. It’s a position I really want to go into to make sure I can reach my full potential."