Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) has always been sober in his analysis of his own prospects. On the eve of this Giro d'Italia, for instance, he told L'Équipe that while he believed himself to be a fine rider, he questioned whether he would ever be considered a champion. "I do the best I can, and if that's enough, then so be it," Pinot said then.
On the slopes of Costalissoio on Sunday, Pinot was equally clear-headed in his assessment of the situation when Simon Yates launched his devastating onslaught on the front group. As soon as the maglia rosa raised himself from the saddle, it was clear that he was operating on a different plane to Pinot and the rest. So it goes.
"When he made his second acceleration yesterday, I didn't move. I didn't even think about it. I couldn't," Pinot said during his rest day press conference in Trento on Monday. "I was already glad just to get up to him the first time. When he went again, we were all already flat out. For the moment, he's really untouchable."
Six stages from the end of the Giro, Yates holds a lead of 2:11 over Tom Dumoulin, while Pinot lies in fourth place overall, 2:37 down. Yates has helped himself to three stage wins (it would have been four had he not ceded victory on Mount Etna to his teammate Esteban Chaves) and has given the rather extraordinary impression that he can drop his rivals whenever the mood takes him.
A year ago, Pinot finished fourth overall in a Giro of such depth that men of the calibre of Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali marvelled at the intensity of the racing as they tried to break eventual winner Dumoulin's resolve in the high mountains. As he ran the rule over the first two weeks of action, Pinot explained that, if anything, the level required has been even higher this time around.
"I'm finding that for the moment, some people are stronger," Pinot said. "For example, [Domenico] Pozzovivo is stronger than last year. Yates is also stronger than Quintana was in the mountains. So obviously the level is higher than last year.
"At the start, I thought that without Quintana and Nibali, it would be a more open Giro than last year, but in the end, we've come up against some very strong rivals. I think I'm on the same level as last year, it's just that, for the moment, some riders have been stronger than last year."
Pinot has been a most consistent performer through the opening two weeks of this Giro, but in Yates, he has come against a rider who has consistently made the extraordinary seem routine. Then again, two years ago Steven Kruijswijk appeared in a similarly impregnable position as the corsa rosa entered its decisive phase only for his race to be undone by a crash on the descent of the Colle Agnello.
"The Giro d'Italia is a race apart, and in the last few years there have been a lot of late turnarounds, like with Nibali two years ago, so we'll keep going on in hope," Pinot said. "There are still some very hard and long stages to come, so let's wait for Saturday evening. We're still allowed to hope."
The Giro resumes on Tuesday with a 34km time trial from Trento to Rovereto that should, at least in principle, present Pinot with an opportunity to recoup some of the ground he has lost to Yates to this point. The Frenchman reconnoitred the parcours ahead of the Tour of the Alps last month, and he said that he hoped to limit his losses to Dumoulin to within 90 seconds.
"Two years ago, I beat Froome and Dumoulin in the time trial in Romandie, and that's always what I hope to repeat in a time trial," Pinot smiled. "I hope I can do a big time trial tomorrow, but you never know. Last year, I thought I would do two good time trials on the Giro and I ended up doing two bad ones… I expect I'll lose time on Dumoulin but I hope to do the best time trial out of the climbers. That wouldn't be bad."
Whatever way it plays out, the result in Rovereto will set the tone for the remainder of this Giro, where the final troika of stages in the Alps – and the summit finishes at Bardonecchia and Cervinia, in particular – offer a different challenge to anything that has come before now. The longer and steadier passes of the Alps suit Pinot better than a brutally steep ascent like the Zoncolan, though he, like everybody else, will need a jour sans from Yates somewhere along the way if he is to take pink in Rome.
"Everything is possible, it's the Giro. But when you look at Yates, if he keeps riding like this, it's impossible. Everybody knows that, there's no point in denying it," Pinot said. "But if the gap narrows between Dumoulin and Yates after the time trial, they could mark one another and perhaps I could take advantage. The race isn't over, but it's also true that, for the moment, Yates is completely untouchable."