By Julien Pretot
LA MASSANA, Andorra (Reuters) - A new generation of professional riders is emerging intent on breaking with old habits in the peloton and doing things their own way, according to Frenchman Romain Bardet.
Speaking to Reuters on the first rest day of the Tour de France, Bardet, sixth overall in the 2014 Tour and a potential podium finisher in Paris, said riders should not be seen as brainless pedal pushers.
"We like to put a tag on cyclists -- saying they're a bit thick, just good to push on the pedals, with their shaven legs and trademark tan, but it’s not just that," the 25-year-old said.
"I hate this cliche. It’s a simplistic approach, riders are profoundly human, with their sensibility, their political awareness."
After years of Lance Armstrong domination, a new generation of riders born in the 1990s is taking over, looking to bring a breath of fresh air into a sport long plagued by Omerta -- the law of silence imposed by the disgraced American rider.
The professional peloton has until recently been ruled by self-proclaimed leaders, such as Fabian Cancellara, whose influence in the pack is still being felt.
"I have no link (with him). Cancellara has never spoken to me, I think he does not even know I’m a professional bike rider," said Bardet, a composed and articulate character who has a degree in management.
"There is a new generation coming that will have their own approach to riding although we mean no disrespect to the past. I was talking about Cancellara but Alberto Contador is a very respectful rival, who’ll pat you on the back, like Alejandro Valverde.
"It’s more open, there is no clear hierarchy, even if (world champion Peter) Sagan is a bit of a leader there will be no boss like before," he added.
Sagan, 26, has spoken up for riders' safety recently and is extremely popular in the peloton, unlike the 35-year-old Cancellara.
Just like Sagan, Bardet is concerned about safety and believes authorities have not been dealing swiftly enough with the concern.
Riders need to unite but the nature of the sport makes it difficult.
"In an environment that is so fiercely competitive, it’s really hard to find unity," said Bardet.
"It is absolutely necessary but it's hard to bring the riders together. We’re not being consulted much by the (cycling)authorities.
"It’s a precarious world, riders have one or two-year contracts which means it is hard for them to commit for the sport in the long term."
French riders, however, are quite united, a consequence of years of abuse by other riders when France was at the forefront of the fight against doping in the late 1990s.
'Francais de merde' (shitty Frenchman) is an insult that is still being heard in the peloton, Bardet confirmed, saying the fight against old habits is not over.
"You even hear that from riders who pretend they rule the peloton," he said.
"So nothing is won yet. But it's changing with the new generation. I'm thinking of (Italian Fabio) Aru, (the 2015 Vuelta winner) who is not like that at all. It's more a question of generation than nationality."
Bardet, who was ninth on last year's Tour and now lies sixth after nine stages, 44 seconds behind overall leader Chris Froome, said he intends to keep a cautious approach in the rest of the race, reining in his attacking instincts.
"It's not like in 1998 when it was 'open bar', when you could attack day after day," he said referring to the year of the Festina doping scandal when widespread use of the blood-boosting EPO was revealed.
"We’re human. I’m aware of my capacities, I know that if I go too deep into the red one day I’ll pay for it the next day.
"Attacking when you’ve got five Sky riders at the front of the peloton and ending up with a five-minute deficit just to show my face on telly, I’m not interested. That would be shooting myself in the foot twice."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Rex Gowar)