The old adage says that Tour de France success requires the head and the legs, and nowhere was that more apparent than on the opening mountain stage to Ax 3 Domaines last weekend, where Thibaut Pinot experienced a devastating fear of descending on the Col de Pailhères that day. With very few downhill kilometres preceding the Giant of Provence on stage 15, the Mont Ventoux could be just the place for the young FDJ rider to turn his fortunes around.
A heavy crash as a junior has meant that Pinot has always been at the cautious end of the descending spectrum, but that problem has exacerbated since the beginning of this year. The Tour de France has the tendency to amplify the effects of any such displays of weakness, and so it proved at Ax 3 Domaines, as Pinot lost over six minutes, and worse was to follow the next day at Bagnères-de-Bigorre, when he conceded another 25.
"On the way up the Col des Pailhères I was up there with the leaders, always in the first four wheels, so I was feeling very good physically," Pinot told Cyclingnews. "But after that, I had a sort of mental block on the descent, which is penalising me more and more. I hope that I can work on that and find a solution to it very soon."
Pinot laid bare his phobia of descending in a candid interview with L'Équipe during the week, admitting that he had even asked himself why he was continuing in the Tour. And yet the 23-year-old has a history of bouncing back from early disappointments in major stage races, be it at the 2011 Dauphiné, when he lost his GC hopes immediately only to shine in the high Alps, or at last year's Tour, where he fell short on home roads at La Planche des Belles Filles only to claim stage victory the following day.
"That's true, and even as an espoir, I often had a défaillance one day and afterwards I would recover mentally," he said. "But I came into this Tour with high hopes for the general classification, so to mess it all up like that on the first mountain stage was really very hard on me mentally. I'm going better now, and I just hope that I can start over in the final week."
FDJ manager Marc Madiot may have a reputation for bombast in public, but behind closed doors he showed himself sensitive to his young leader's dark night of the soul, taking him aside to explain that he too had suffered from a block on descents as a rider starting out in the professional peloton.
"FDJ is like a big family and it's helped me a lot to develop in an environment like that," Pinot said. "Everybody is close and when you have a tough moment like I had in the Pyrenees, that makes it easier to lift your morale and I'm motivated for what is to come."
Ventoux on a special day
Looming on the horizon is Mont Ventoux on stage 15, and there can scarcely be a grander amphitheatre for Pinot's attempted resurgence than the ascent of the mighty Giant of Provence on Bastille Day. The climb is prefaced by 220 kilometres of flat and that poses something of a tactical conundrum for Pinot – should he try to infiltrate the early break or can he hope to win à la pédale against yellow jersey Chris Froome?
"The Mont Ventoux stage on July 14 is very special of course, but we'll have to see how to approach it tactically," Pinot said. "It could be that the big teams will be happy to let breakaways stay away to the finish, or else the big favourites might want to try and win on Mont Ventoux themselves. We'll have to wait and see whether to try and go in the morning break or go for it on the final climb, but Froome is unbeatable, I think."
Pinot has never raced on the Ventoux as a professional but he has reconnoitred the stage and is well aware of what awaits him on the famous 21.5 kilometre haul from Bedoin, which constitutes some of the Tour's most hallowed ground.
"For me, it's the hardest mountain pass in France, along with the Tourmalet I think. It's a tough climb to begin with, and then you have the heat and a bit of wind to deal with at the end too. It's a very difficult mountain and it never really flattens out."