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Thibaut Pinot’s slow progress back to his best continued at Bessèges

Close to the best climbers — but not yet one of them at the French stage race — Thibaut Pinot and his team are taking a long-term perspective.

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ALÈS, France (VN) – After opting to include the Étoile de Bessèges on his program at the last moment, three-time Tour de France stage winner Thibaut Pinot enjoyed mixed fortunes at the opening stage race of the French season, which he ended in 11th place on GC, two minutes behind winner Benjamin Thomas (Cofidis).

Also read: Étoile de Bessèges – A new star rises in Tobias Johannessen

On the positive side, his Groupama-FDJ team looked strong throughout, particularly his key mountain domestique Sébastien Reichenbach and new arrival Quentin Pacher, who finished in 10th place on GC, four seconds ahead of his team captain.

On the other hand, Pinot’s own performance was below expectations. After Saturday’s “queen” stage to Mont Bouquet, where Pinot finished 18th after his team had set him up for the climber perfectly, Groupama-FDJ DS Thierry Bricaud admitted that, “Thibaut’s legs didn’t respond as he hoped. There’s a bit of frustration because there was a lot of desire this morning, it was a real test.”

Speaking to VeloNews just before starting the Mont Bouquet stage, Pinot had said that his form was improving but played down his chances of victory, correctly picking out Uno-X’s Tobias Johannessen as likely the strongest climber in the race. “The plan hasn’t been for me to be going flat-out, right from the first race days. I’m not at 100 percent right now,” he said.

This wasn’t surprising bearing in mind that Pinot acknowledged that he wasn’t one of the team’s in-form riders during Groupama-FDJ’s January training camp in Calpe, Spain. Usually, he’s already their strongest climbers at that point in the season, but he admitted to team boss Marc Madiot that he’s still edging way back towards optimum condition following a lingering back problem that has dogged him since he crashed on the opening day of the 2020 Tour de France in Nice.

Since returning to full-time race action last August, the 31-year-old Frenchman has deliberately progressed slowly, with the intention of reaching peak fitness in July when he is set to return to the Tour after a two-year absence.

Bricaud explained that Bessèges’ rolling stages and particularly the climb to Mont Bouquet highlighted that Pinot can follow the pace of his rivals, but he couldn’t respond or accelerate when the key moves came.

Swiss climber Reichenbach underlined that there’s no reason for concern, though. “It’s just the first race of the season, so there’s no point overreacting. Our main objectives are further down the road. We’re just here to get our bearings again and push things up a level. We’ve got a busy program going into the spring and we have to keep building steadily,” he said.

That program is due to take Pinot to the Tour des Alpes-Maritimes et du Haut-Var and the Boucles Drôme-Ardèche later this month, followed by Tirreno-Adriatico (March 7-13), the Tour du Jura (April 16), the Tour of the Alps (April 18-22) and the Tour de Romandie (26 April-1 May).

As things stand, the Frenchman’s last major rendezvous prior to the Tour’s start in Copenhagen will be mid-June’s Tour of Switzerland.