Stranger things have happened when the French president has visited the Tour de France in years past, though the thought will be of little consolation to Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) after they contrived to allow victory slip through their fingers in Mende on stage 14.
In 1960, for instance, the peloton stopped at Colombey-les-deux-Église to pay its respects to Charles De Gaulle, which allowed Pierre Beuffeuil, delayed by a puncture, to make up three minutes and then slip away to snare a cheeky stage victory in Troyes.
On Saturday afternoon, before the visiting President François Hollande, Stephen Cummings (MTN-Qhubeka) sprang a surprise of another kind when he caught Pinot and Bardet as the road flattened out with a little over a kilometre to go, and then blew right by them to win the stage.
As the day’s early break reached the foot of the stiff final climb Côte de la Croix Neuve – the so-called Montée Laurent Jalabert – with a sizeable lead over the yellow jersey group, Pinot and Bardet must both have sensed that they had a golden opportunity to burnish their troubled Tours.
Third and sixth overall, respectively, a year ago, the French youngsters had lost all hopes of a repeat showing by the lower slopes of the Tour’s first serious climb, La Pierre-Saint-Martin on stage 10, but had each shown signs of recovery as the race left the Pyrenees.
The punchy Bardet responded to the attack of Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) as the gradient stiffened on the Croix Neuve with a little under three kilometres remaining and then forged clear alone. Pinot, meanwhile, set a determined tempo behind, eventually bridging across to the Ag2r man as they approached the summit of the climb.
The anticipated home duel failed to materialise – or at least, not in the manner expected. Bardet waved Pinot through to the front but then ignored his overtures to return the favour as the gradient eased. Unbeknownst to them both, Cummings had launched himself in pursuit and the Englishman was canny enough to move immediately to the front as soon as he caught them.
Cummings didn’t relent as the road descended slightly in the final kilometre and opened a small gap. The apparent distrust between Pinot and Bardet hardly helped the chase effort. Cummings freewheeled across the line the stage winner, while a disappointed Pinot out-sprinted an equally distraught Bardet for second place two seconds behind.
“I’m very downhearted,” Bardet told a scrum of reporters just past the finish line, his voice raw. “It’s the second stage win I’ve missed out on this week. I don’t know what to say. Thibaut came back up to me and I started to suffer. I said to Thibaut to do a turn and then Cummings caught us. I don’t know what Thibaut did on the corner but he left a gap open [to Cummings]. It’s a shame.”
At the other side of the road, Pinot was recounting his version of events. “Romain and I were looking at each other, we hesitated,” he said. “We needed to work together immediately. But Cummings came up quickly from behind and he was able to take the corner a lot quicker than us.
“The last rider I saw before getting up to Romain was [Rigoberto] Uran. There was a lot of noise and I never knew that Cummings was coming back up. He played his hand well. It’s a shame.”
While Bardet insisted that he and Pinot were “friends,” there is, of course, an unspoken rivalry between two young riders with similar ambitions from the same country. Certainly, one sensed the frissons when Pinot bridged across to Bardet, and when Bardet, almost by way of response, delayed before helping Pinot in his pursuit of Cummings.
“Romain refused to do a turn. But everybody has his own tactics, it’s normal. We’re two competitors and we both wanted to win,” Pinot said.
“For now, we’ve both failed at this Tour. It would have been good if one of us had been able to win today. It’s extremely disappointing,” Bardet said.
Their presence in the day’s break sees both Bardet and Pinot rise in the overall standings, though it was of little consolation as they pondered their near miss in Mende. Bardet is now 12th at 13:10, while Pinot moves up to 17th overall.
“No, it means nothing,” Bardet said. “I finished 6th at the Tour last year and I came here to do better. Now that’s not going happening, I want to win a stage, and I’ve left a chance pass me by today.”
Pinot’s ill-starred Tour saw him lose ground in the crosswinds in the Netherlands and due to mechanical problems on the pavé, before bronchitis and the extreme heat hampered him as the race entered the Pyrenees. After coming close to abandoning on the Col de Portet-d’Aspet on Thursday, Pinot’s brother and coach Julien told Cyclingnews the following day that he was optimistic about his prospects of salvaging something from the Tour before Paris.
“There’s no positive to be drawn from today,” Pinot said. “There aren’t many opportunities on the Tour and it’s annoying to waste them. Second place [on a Tour stage] is worthless.”