Romain Bardet, the erudite French climber, has always quietly struck me as a little bit of a legend. Perhaps it’s his articulate way in interviews, or how much he loves his beautiful family, or the fact that he does nice things for other people, like that time he sacrificed his race clambering into a ditch to help a crashed and distressed Julian Alaphilippe at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Now a YouTube clip from earlier this year, recently resurfaced on the r/peloton subreddit, provides perhaps the most compelling evidence yet.
In the clip, a fully kitted-up Bardet climbs a hill on an old steel touring bike, sleeping mat strapped to the front, panniers to the back. It apparently shows a bikepacking Bardet making his way to this August’s MadCow music festival.
All is not quite as it seems: rather than actual footage of Bardet’s journey it is instead a pre-filmed ad, released as a teaser for the festival in a bid to encourage people to ride there. But that doesn’t mean that Bardet wasn’t there. The Frenchman was, in fact, a major attraction of the event, competing in novelty races against festival goers, him on a gravel bike and them on electric mountain bikes.
For Bardet, the MadCow festival came a few weeks after his departure from the Tour de France with concussion following a nasty crash on stage 14. That Tour, he’d been riding strongly, sitting on the fringes of the top 10 and enjoying support from family and local friends on the Tour’s visit to Puy de Dome. His assessment after leaving the race was a bit more downcast: “Should I be satisfied to show competitive spirit while being up front? Yes. But winning a stage was impossible. The hardest thing is that I sacrificed months for nothing and on top of that I didn’t have fun on the bike,” he told l’Equipe.
So for a couple of weeks, he recovered, and then in early August took a short journey from his home near Clermont-Ferrand to the MadCow Festival. Among crowds of bohemian French people like himself – well, not quite like himself, because they are not one of the country’s best cyclists – he rode his bike again.
Look at him having fun! Doesn’t it do your heart good, even if you can’t understand a word anyone’s saying?
The MadCow Festival, for whatever it’s worth, seems like a blast. The website has a lovely little poem up the top, which feels like it captures the vibe of a place out of time even after Google Translate has had its wicked way:
As for the 100% French music program: it is 100% people I have never heard of, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be a great time. There was a band called Walter Astral, “a multiverse explorer exploring parallel worlds by traversing wormholes hidden in giant redwoods.” Playing until 4am (oh, to be young) on the Friday was someone called Roland Cristal, a producer of “minimalist and innocent lo-fi techno, recalling a certain state of mind of the internet of yesteryear: always second-rate, never cynical.” On the Saturday, there was Mr Giscard, an “incorrigible romantic, a little out of sorts … his crude words are surprising and sometimes disturbing, but one thing is certain: you will not forget him.” Want something more poppy? Try Yoa, whose voice is “both powerful and fragile like Billie Eilish or Rosalia, with raw and poetic lyrics that explore the ills of her generation.”
And then there were the non-musical activities: not just a bike race against Romain Bardet, but also the “opening of chakras after a busy evening” offered by yoga; the skate contests, the giant Cluedo, the pottery workshops and the enormous waterslide jumps into the on-site lake. As post-festival photos show, everyone seemed to be having a great time, including (and especially) those smoking the Special Cigarettes. Everything seemed to be shot through with a hazy nostalgic golden glow, even though the weather was “capricious,” and if you rode to the festival you got four free drink tokens. What a time to be alive.
As for our man Bardet, it’s unclear whether the MadCow Festival awoke any suppressed yearnings for a more bacchanalian existence, but heading into the 2024 season he’s got half an eye on the exit. His contract with DSM-Firmenich expires at the end of next year, and he’s unsure whether he’ll hang up the bike. “It’s completely open. I’m really still enjoying it but I’m now in the position and at a certain age where I have to evaluate and see where it develops,” Bardet told GCN this month. “I don’t want to be that guy who slowly but surely goes down the rankings in the peloton. I need to make sure I still have what it takes to be up there and we’ll see how that develops during the year.”
The Tour de France is the line in the sand, Bardet said: “I’ll probably decide on what’s next just before the Tour but for now, I want to focus on the first part of the season and what it takes to be away for such a long period in the year and see what level that I can achieve. At the back of my head, I know it could be my last year but I could also carry on, so it’s pretty open at this point.”
And if he does retire, there’s a whole life to discover out there. “For me, it would be important to fulfil a new role and not just be an ex-pro rider,” Bardet told GCN. “Inside or outside of cycling, I could study and do something outside of cycling even if it means starting from scratch. I’m keen to develop. When I stop it will be the biggest challenge of my life.”
Perhaps that will mean more time with his gorgeous family, overlooking extinct volcanoes. Or, perhaps, it will look like some long bikepacking trips, like the one he (probably) didn’t take to MadCow Festival. And maybe next year he’ll ride to the festival site festooned with garlands, strip back to boardshorts and gracefully backflip into the lake. Then, he’ll be able to lose himself in the music, find his rhythm in the swaying golden grass, recollect his two podiums at the Tour de France, and realise that there is a life before and there is a life after.
I like to imagine him smiling there, face lit by the stage lights, glowstick around his neck and glitter on his cheeks, remembering the joys that the bike has brought and looking forward to the joys that await off it.
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