In what has become an annual tradition, the French press is once again musing on the best chance for one of their own riders before the start of the Tour de France. And it is a conversation that only seems to intensify as another year passes without a successor to Bernard Hinault—the last Frenchman to win the Tour back in 1985.
Last year’s Tour only heightened the fervor.
Julian Alaphilippe stormed to two stage wins and wore the yellow jersey for 14 days. And then there was the stunning rise and tragic fall of Thibaut Pinot — who proved to be the strongest rider in the Pyrenees, only to drop out of the race with a knee injury the day that Egan Bernal took over the yellow jersey in the Alps.
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Since that day, it seems, the “would have-s” and “could have-s” have only grown.
In many ways, this year’s Tour appears tailor-made for a punchy climber like Pinot. The race is riddled with mountains from start to finish, and the only time trial — an uphill test to La Planche des Belles Filles — finishes virtually in his back yard. Ever since the 2020 route was unveiled, Pinot has been the hands-down French favorite.
“I feel stronger than a year ago,” Pinot said flatly at his Groupama-FDJ press conference Friday. “The objective is to do the best possible. The podium is for sure a goal, but really I want to go as high as possible. I am arriving at 100 percent and I haven’t had any crashes or injuries. I just want to ride as best as I can.”
Pinot has already finished on the podium in the Tour. But while his 2014 performance was full of promise, it was instead followed by much frustration, as the Frenchman struggled with the pressure of being a team leader and a Tour favorite. Sure there were flashes of brilliance, winning stages in both the Tour and the Giro d’Italia and taking monument victory at Il Lombardia.
But such flashes were too often followed by long periods of mediocrity.
At 30, however, Pinot finally seems to have the maturity necessary to handle the pressures of a three-week Tour.
“Mentally I feel stronger, and I am coming into the race really relaxed, really calm,” Pinot said. “Since 2014 we’ve been saying that this is the year for the French. But the biggest difference for me now is that, at 30, I handle the pressure much better.”
“Thibaut is really motivated and really relaxed,” confirmed Rudy Molard, one of Pinot’s key support riders in the mountains. “I feel like we have a really good team in the mountains. We can hold our own against Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers.”
“Ineos and Jumbo-Visma are the clear favorites, but I think we are just behind,” Pinot adds. “We don’t have the armadas like them. But they will have the responsibility of controlling the race already on stage one. That will add pressure on them. And we will have opportunities in the race, we will be able to play off of them.”
But while Pinot is firstly focused on the overall finish, he also has an eye on the yellow jersey, and with the race going into the Alps as early as stage 4 with its summit finish atop Orcières-Merlette, there will be ample opportunities throughout the three weeks for Pinot to make his mark, and maybe, just maybe, grab the coveted yellow jersey.
“There is a big chance that the winner there (i.e., stage 4) will be in yellow,” Pinot said. “No, it is not the hardest stage in the Tour, but it is a stage we all hope to win.”
But if his “maillot jaune” moment does not come in Orcières, he knows there will be ample opportunity afterward.
“I just really hope to wear it at least some time in my life. It will be a real void if I don’t manage to wear it at least once in my career.”