But much to the delight of the ever more delirious French fans, Thibaut Pinot is quickly emerging as the strongest climber in this Tour de France. And with three hard stages left to go in the Alps next week, Pinot’s brute strength could carry the day.
“It was my kind of weather and I had to take advantage,” Pinot said after Sunday’s 15th stage. “It was a beautiful stage just as I love it and I had good sensations and I was able to make an advantage.”
With victory Saturday and second on Sunday, Pinot is punching his way back into contention.
A critical time loss of 1:40 in stage 10 was a big blow to his overall ambitions. A solid time trial in Pau kept Pinot’s GC hopes alive, he started Saturday’s stage at 3:22 back. With his emotional victory Saturday, and a winner’s 10-second bonus, and the 1:16 he reclaimed Sunday, and an six-second second place bonus, Pinot is right back in the thick of things.
Compatriot Alaphilippe is the darling of the French media right now and is bravely defending the yellow jersey, but showed his first cracks Sunday. If Alaphilippe falters, Pinot is poised to carry French hopes to Paris.
“We are back in the fight for the GC and the hardest stages are still to come ,” Pinot said. “If I have good legs, I will be able to keep taking time.”
Sunday’s four-climb stage across the Pyrénées revealed everyone’s true colors after two hard weeks of unrelenting racing. A big breakaway pulled clear on the day’s first major climb and a heated chase soon saw the top GC stars largely exposed.
As cool temperatures and light rain descended on the final climbs, the man from the Vosges bounded clear. Groupama-FDJ put two riders into the big move and then David Gaudu delivered another stellar set-up for Pinot’s final move.
Pinot lumbered out of the saddle with about just under 6km to go and bounded up the misty heights of the Pyrénées to drop the elite of the peloton. Egan Bernal (Ineos) put a brave fight but was soon ceded as Pinot’s rage carried him toward the summit. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) won out of the break and Pinot was content with second.
“It was impossible to follow Pinot,” said Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma). “He was too fast for me when he accelerated. No one else could keep his wheel.”
Confidence is growing inside the Groupama-FDJ bus. This year’s Tour course is ideal for Pinot and he returned to the French tour with high hopes following a self-imposed exile to put the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España at the center of his ambitions the past few seasons. Pinot rode to third at the 2014 Tour in just his third start, but has since struggled at the Tour. This year, things are dramatically different.
At 29, Pinot is clearly in the best shape of his career and is emerging as the strongest climber in the race. Now just 1:50 behind Alaphilippe, he’s only three seconds behind the podium to Kruijswijk in third and 15 seconds to Geraint Thomas (Ineos) in third.
“We wanted to make a big move in the Pyrénées and it’s worked out,” said sport director Yves Madiot. “We made a good time trial, won a stage and now second place today. The race is still undecided.”
And what about that critical time loss in stage 10? Pinot was caught out in the crosswinds and bled 1:40 on the flats with precious time that requires brutal efforts in the mountains to regain.
Groupama-FDJ sport director Philippe Mauduit said the team quickly put the time losses of stage 10 out their minds and vowed to race aggressively in the Pyrénées.
“That is racing — it can happen to you one day, and your rival the next,” Mauduit said. “Thibaut is among the best climbers in the world. He takes confidence in knowing he has good legs.”
In just two stages, Pinot has erased the 1:40 he lost to Alaphilippe and the other top favorites in the crosswinds in stage 10.
Pinot has the momentum, the confidence and a very strong team for the mountains. If France is going to win its first Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985, it has two options with Alaphilippe and Pinot. And Pinot is the one looking the strongest with a week to go.