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Why, regardless of the final outcome, Romain Bardet's AG2R will be the real winners of the 2017 Tour de France

Jack Elton-Walters
17 Jul 2017

French rider is living up to the hope of a nation, & his smaller budget team is showing the big guns how to race with passion & excitement

Romain Bardet's audacious attack on Stage 19 of last year's Tour de France, from Albertville to Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, gave him a well earned stage win but also moved him from fifth to second overall, where he finished two days later in Paris.

This came at a time when the rest of the riders in the top 10 were seemingly looking over their shoulders to ensure they retained their position in the GC rather than challenging anyone above them.

With Chris Froome (Team Sky) in the lead by nearly four minutes after Stage 18's time trial last year, the chances of a change of yellow jersey were far fetched but not impossible, though the riders seemed happier to settle than go on the attack and risk it all.

This year, as the riders make the most of the second rest day, the top six is separated by just 1:17. This is 30 seconds less than the deficit that separated first (Froome) and second (Bauke Mollema) at the same time last year.

There are many factors at play here, but looming large is the presence and attacking flair of the French squad AG2R La Mondiale.

Bardet's band of brown clad baroudeurs really announced themselves on Stage 9 when they launched coordinated, simultaneous attacks from both the breakaway and the group of overall contenders.

The attack up the front split the group of escapees, while Bardet himself launched away from his rivals to go clear on a descent. The long run in from the bottom of the descent to the finish line was Bardet's undoing and he was caught and passed by a number of his rivals.

Not sitting up sooner when it was clear the catch would be made was arguably a tactical boo boo, but the fight he showed to keep going is illustrative of the fighting spirit embodied by AG2R's 2017 Tour team.

As impressive, although ultimately fruitless, as this well executed plan was, Stage 15 is where AG2R La Mondiale really lit things up.

While the rest of the top 10, save for Froome who had Mikel Landa on hand, were left without any helpers Bardet mobbed the front of the GC group with teammates.

They set a blistering pace on the first category climbs of the day, and for a time put the yellow jersey of Froome in trouble after he missed a split and suffered a mechanical.

Credit here should be paid to Froome for the way he fought back and probably saved his race as he heads for a fourth Tour de France title, but the energy needed to close the gap could be telling in the stages to come.

Although it looked like it was going to be a much different outcome, in the end the top end of the GC was unchanged and AG2R's efforts looked to be in vain.

However, the strength, coordination, and firepower shown by Bardet and his faithful lieutenants will have sent a message to the rest of those wanting to stand on the podium in Paris on Sunday 23rd July.

There are some decisive stages to come before the ceremonial roll around the Champs Elysees, and you can be sure that Bardet and others will push Froome all the way.

Whatever the composition of the final podium in Paris, AG2R La Mondiale will have won fans, plaudits and confidence from their Tour de France escapades.

Spectators are winners, too

Since Team Sky broke onto the scene there have been grumblings about the way the British squad controls races, stifles competition and shuts down the spectacle of bike racing.

This looked to be the case last year when, with a four minute advantage, Froome never really looked like being challenged in the final week of the 2016 Tour de France.

Now, with that margin at the top so tight, Team Sky not looking quite as dominant as pevious years and other teams willing to take the race to them, the 2017 Tour de France has at times been all the more exciting to watch.

Although not always: think long sprint stages.

The booing directed at Froome while he was chasing back on during Stage 15 was no doubt uncalled for, but take that out of the equation and you had the yellow jersey, alone, chasing his way up to a formidable group of rivals all aiming to steal his crown.

It made for cracking viewing and was all set up by the tactics of AG2R.

Money talks, and this is where AG2R are really winning

The aim here isn't to straight-up compare AG2R La Mondiale to Team Sky, but with the latter commanding a huge budget and boasting an array of riders who could lead many other teams, that's where the comparison naturally falls back to.

Figures published by French newspaper L'Equipe during the 2016 Tour estimated the budgets of each competing team.

At the top were Team Sky (€35m), Katusha (€32m) and BMC Racing (€28m), while AG2R were joint 13th out of 22 teams with an expected budget of €12m.

The AG2R La Mondiale group is a French wealth and retirement interest. The hours of television coverage, newspaper front pages shouting about the chance of a French Tour de France winner and the associated chatter around the race bring huge value in the company's home market.

The allocation of funds and rider effort is tilted heavily towards the Tour de France, but that suits the title sponsor just fine. Better second in their home Grand Tour than a string of stage wins at the Giro d'Italia or first place in some minor Classics; and this year that second place could plausibly be bettered.

The final outcome of the Tour de France will probably still see Froome upon the top step of the podium in Paris, but unlike during his three previous wins that doesn't look quite such a dead cert.

Whether Bardet can leapfrog Astana's Fabio Aru to equal his own second place from last year is also open to question, but you can be sure that he and his team will not spend the last week just protecting third place, and thanks to that spectators and the team's sponsors will be the winners wherever the 26-year-old finishes on the GC.