ROMONT, Switzerland (VN) — It’s stage 1 at the Tour de Romandie and the sun is shining on La Grande Beroche.
The light skims off the surface of Lake Neuchatel and is shining in the background, just meters from the rider sign-on, and although this is definitely the beginning of the Tour de France build-up for many, it’s a largely stress-free environment.
When I raced professionally this used to be my first test in terms of where I compared myself to the other climbers but crucially it was always a nice introduction to the main part of the season. After being physically and mentally assaulted by the spring classics, this first proper mountain race almost always felt like a relief.
Make no mistake, the Tour de Romandie is a hard race, and the competition is always of a high level but it also has a relaxed feel to it. Nice roads, nice hotels, and the stages are not too long, so that even if you’re not in your best form the workload is manageable.
There’s something for everyone on at least one of the days. The peloton is roughly 130 riders so you can usually move up without too much hassle, and more importantly, the nervousness of the early races has dissipated. After the classics, everyone just takes a moment to catch their breath, reflect and stack stock.
- How the pros prepare for a prologue at the Tour de Romandie
- Philippa York: It’s UAE versus Jumbo while Ineos and the rest look on
The only thing that might grate is the weather, much like at Itzulia Basque Country. So in the team cars, they will have every option of clothing for every eventuality. Sometimes all seasons are served up on the same day, sometimes in the same hour. But when you’re given a hint of warmth this part of Switzerland is a pleasant place to be.
After his first win in over a thousand days at the Tour of the Alps, I’m not quite sure if Thibaut Pinot is on the comeback trail or if he has accepted his fate of never being the Tour winner that France once hoped he might be. I don’t think he knows either, and from listening to him giving an interview to L’Equipe, there’s no hint of frustration following a prologue performance that he describes as poor.
“I didn’t really get going,” he says. “It didn’t suit me and with a corner every 30 seconds it was for the specialists.”
However, there’s a hint that ambition hasn’t left him or FDJ completely despite the disappointment.
“We’re not that far behind and I’m not going to draw any conclusions from it. There are three stages before the big mountain stage at the weekend so I’m not going to let it worry me,” he said. “We’ve lost Michael Storer who had a fever yesterday and he was an important part of the team but we had a briefing this morning and although the results weren’t great we’ll try to rectify the situation today.”
Given that his return to the pointy end of racing has been a long and arduous journey, I hesitate to say that he’s lost too much time to the Ineos riders and race leader Rohan Dennis already.
They bossed the prologue, but Pinot’s overall position in the grand scheme of the race, and especially the season, is hard to read. If one were to admit that he’s already out of the frame in Romandie it would be to admit defeat, and the media would be picking over not just his physical capacities but whether he mentally still has what it takes to pay attention on each stage, fight for position, and be the leader that the Madiot brothers have nurtured.
“My objective now is to not lose more time,” he said in Romandie. “We know the finish because David [Gaudu] won here the last time we came so we’ll see what Rudy Molard or Quentin Pacher can do. It’ll be difficult because there’s a lot of top guys here like Teuns and Hayter, who are almost unbeatable on slopes like today, but it’s not over.”
And there’s the clue in this rejuvenated Thibault Pinot, he harbors ambition, not only for himself but also the group.
It’s as if his troubles have left a mark but not destroyed the man, and he recognizes what has been presented as failures aren’t that at all.
Look back five years and he would have been barely hiding the panic of not meeting the expectations that hung over him. He’s always been emotional, which you might say is as much to do with being French as it is having Marc Madiot directing him.
Of course, that’s why the public and the media love Pinot. The frailties, the highs, the lows, the saga of ‘will he, won’t he’. These have all been constants that he’s wrestled with since he first flew into Porrentruy on stage 8 of the 2012 Tour de France.
Now, almost 10 years later, the young man has matured. The basic raw talent remains but how he accesses that has changed, like we all change, into more considered individuals.
If his Tour de Romandie goes well in the mountains, the media will soon be speculating again about possible Tour de France glory. The press will ask whether he can take it to the Slovenians, and that would be only normal considering France awaits someone to end the drought of overall victories. However, Pinot 2.0 seems to be in a much better place to deal with the hype that would bring.
The Tour of the Alps not only saw his return to winning but what was also noticeable was how he digested the defeat that he endured the day before his comeback win. Sure, there were tears but the downtrodden Pinot would have folded, broken by the pressures and the sense that everything was against him.
I was speaking with Yvon Madiot, the assistant team manager for Groupama-FDJ, after his rider had returned to the sanctity of the bus, and he explained that setbacks are no longer catastrophic. There’s perspective nowadays and whatever comes along he’ll deal with it.
When he won the final stage in Lienz barely a week ago he was riding with a broken rear wheel and he coped. He adjusted and ultimately overcame his companion de jour, David de la Cruz, in the uphill sprint.
Sure, back in La Mayenne, boss Marc would have been screaming at his television but now this Thibaut Pinot has an air of inner calmness that won’t be affected.