No regrets, just healthy disappointment. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) began the final stage of the Giro d'Italia holding out the faintest hopes of joining Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon among the happy few Frenchmen to have travelled south of the Alps and claimed the maglia rosa. He ended it just shy of the podium, dropping from third to fourth place overall after a low-key display in the concluding time trial in Milan.
While winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), deposed maglia rosa Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and last year's champion Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) were detained for the Giro's famously drawn-out final podium ceremonies, Pinot was ushered to the mixed zone, where he quietly picked through his fine debut in the corsa rosa.
"I'm disappointed now, of course. But I won a stage and up to this morning I was in the fight for the podium or even for overall victory, so there are lots of positives to take from the Giro," said Pinot, who finished the race 1:17 behind Dumoulin and 37 seconds off Nibali's third place.
"The final balance is good all the same even if it's a pity about the podium. I think I did a good time trial against Nibali, but I wasn't super. I don't have any regrets because I gave my maximum, and the top three deserve to their podium too. Everyone is in his place."
Pinot set out from Monza 10 seconds ahead of Dumoulin and only 43 seconds off Quintana's maglia rosa. His improvements against the watch over the past three seasons were capped by a French title in the discipline last year, but despite his recent pedigree, Pinot looked heavy-legged in Sunday's 29.3-kilometre test. His efforts in the final week had exacted a toll.
Pushing a 55-tooth chainring – Dumoulin's strength was such that he turned a 58-tooth chainring – Pinot could only manage 28th in the time trial, losing 1:27 to Dumoulin and eventually placing one position and three seconds behind Quintana. "It was a very particular time trial, and I just tried to go full on," Pinot said.
A defiant second place behind Quintana on the Blockhaus on stage 9 highlighted Pinot's podium credentials, but he showed signs of struggling in the second week. Worse was to follow on the tappone to Bormio on stage 16, a day that included the Mortirolo and twin ascents of the Stelvio. Pinot conceded 1:35 there, and revealed on Sunday that he had expected to fare even worse.
"I was sick. I barely slept the night before the Stelvio stage from coughing up my lungs, so it was hard. I was fortunate that the next stage was a bit easier and I was able to finish the Giro well," he said. I lost ground on the Stelvio. I had a really bad day there, but I fought very hard to limit the damage."
Pinot's Giro took a different turn in the race's final act, where he snatched back time on Quintana, Dumoulin et al at both Ortisei and Piancavallo, and then sprinted to a stylish stage win in Asiago on the penultimate day. That crescendo raised French hopes ahead of the final time trial, but his progress was arrested on the road to Milan.
"I enjoyed the race a lot, and it was nice to be able to attack in the closing days," Pinot said. "I would have liked a bit more rain, instead it was a bit hotter than I'd have liked, but it was still a magnificent Giro. It was a very beautiful edition."
Although Pinot's love of Italy and Italian racing has been a constant in his cycling development, Marc Madiot would hardly have rubber-stamped his Giro debut were it not for his travails at the past two editions of the Tour de France. After placing third and winning the white jersey of best young rider in 2014, Pinot took on the mantle of becoming France's first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault, but could only place 16th – albeit with a stage win on l'Alpe-d'Huez – in 2015, before abandoning through illness last year.
At this Giro, Pinot was able to compete unburdened by the kind of scrutiny he normally faces in the white heat of a French July. He raced with insouciance and it was striking how often these past three weeks he cited his desire to enjoy the race. A polite but essentially reticent public speaker, he even seemed to revel in the novelty of an appearance on RAI television's Processo alla Tappa post-stage analysis show.
"This Giro was important for me. It was a big moment for my career," Pinot said on Sunday afternoon in Milan. "I had two failures on the Tour de France after my third place, so it was good for my confidence to ride like that in a race where the level of competition was as high as the Tour de France. I was close to the podium and I won a mountain stage, so the final balance is positive."
Pinot will return to his native Franche-Comté on Monday morning and, in time, will begin preparations for the Tour de France, where it remains to be seen if he will target stage victories in the mountains or the general classification. His only race before La Grande Boucle is likely to be the time trial at the French Championships, but his programme for 2018 is less certain.
His enthusiasm for all things Italian has not escaped the attention of the local press, and Pinot smiled when he was asked if he was likely to return to the Giro for another tilt at the maglia rosa next year. "I don't know," Pinot said. "We'll have to see the parcours. But whether it's the Giro or the Tour I focus on, I'll be going there to try for the podium."