Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) might have cracked. He has been open about the pressure he has felt at the Tour de France in previous years, and how the psychological burden has, at times, been too great to bear. After a dream start to the 2019 Tour was derailed by a devastating day in the crosswinds, it was far from a given that he would bounce back.
However, in the first true test since that wind-swept nightmare in Albi, where he lost 1:40 to most of his rivals, Pinot refused to wobble. Instead, over the course of 27.2 kilometres against the clock in Pau, he steadied the ship and put himself right in the fight for the podium.
No one knew what to expect from Pinot in Pau, and not just because of the possible psychological hangover. As a time triallist, he is something of an enigma, his performances ranging from the sublime to the shoddy, and everything in between. There was the purple patch of 2016, when he won the French national title and a stage of the Tour de Romandie, but there was also the stage 16 time trial at the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
After some signs of encouragement this season, Pinot clocked 35:49 in Pau to place seventh on the stage and jump three places to seventh overall.
"I rode a good time trial. I could feel I was in good form," the Frenchman told a huge scrum of reporters beyond the finish line.
"There was something lacking because I didn’t have an earpiece out there, and that was a bit unsettling, but when I saw my time at the intermediate checkpoint, and saw I was on track, it was better."
In the wake of the crosswind episode, Pinot declared he had ‘la rage’. He was fired up. Asked how he balanced that with the concentration required in such a discipline as time trialling, he said it was a mixture of the two.
"I was fed up of the flat stages," he said. "I was champing at the bit, and I wanted to open the taps.This is the first part of the Pyrenees, the first part of the true battle, and I’ve shown I’m present and correct."
Pinot didn’t know the final lie of the land after finishing his effort, but despite knowing he’d lost time to Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuixkStep) and Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), he could sense he’d taken time out of a number of other rivals.
He lost 49 seconds to stage winner Alaphilippe and 35 to last year’s champion Thomas. Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) was 13 seconds better, while he conceded four to Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), but he was better than all the other GC contenders. By putting at least a minute into Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), he jumped three places in the overall standings.
Pinot is now seventh overall, 3:22 down on Alaphilippe and 1:56 down on Thomas. The cruel thing is that, if he hadn’t been caught out in the crosswinds, he would be third overall, 16 seconds down on Thomas.
Pinot, of course, can’t dwell on the past, and indeed, his performance in Pau suggest he’s done a good job of moving on. After the rigours of the flat stages and the time trial, his home turf now opens up in front of him, starting with summit finishes on the Col du Tourmalet and Prat d’Albis this weekend, followed by three Alpine outings in the final week.
Written off by some on Monday, Pinot, who has shown himself to be among the very strongest climbers in the race, still has plenty of of say in how this Tour de France unfolds.