While the seconds won and lost by the Tour de France’s Big Four on the Mur de Huy may yet count for little once the race enters the high mountains, the 1:33 conceded by Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) on stage 3 had the feel of an altogether more significant setback.
Having already conceded 1:28 when he was caught out in the crosswinds on the opening road stage to Zeeland on Sunday, Pinot knew that he could ill afford a further misstep as the peloton crossed into Belgium.
The warning signs of a jour sans were already apparent when Pinot was among those wrong-footed by a brief split in the peloton ahead of the Côte d'Ereffe and his situation became altogether more alarming when he was distanced when the race broke up in earnest over the top of the penultimate climb, the Côte de Cherave.
Already 20 seconds down on the leaders by the time he reached the base of the Mur de Huy, Pinot’s was now an exercise in damage limitation but his travails only increased on the climb itself. He crossed the line and now lies 27th overall, 2:58 down on new race leader Chris Froome (Sky).“I wasn’t feeling good, I was dropped near the summit of the penultimate climb. It was a day to forget,” a disappointed Pinot told the huddle of reporters who had waited for his arrival at the FDJ team bus after the finish. “I didn’t have any strength, I had nothing. It was very difficult. I’ve put in a lot of preparation for this Tour so to be three minutes down on GC after three days is disappointing. But that’s sport.” A day of high temperatures and soaring speeds in Wallonia was marked by successive crashes with a shade under 60 kilometres to race that saw an estimated 40 riders hit the ground, prompting the race direction and the collage of commissaires to take the novel step of temporarily neutralising the race, citing concerns that the race’s four ambulances and two medical cars were all held providing aid to the injured. Pinot’s teammate William Bonnet appeared to be the first man to go down after seeming to touch wheels a Lampre-Merida rider in front of him. The Frenchman was taken away by ambulance and was later diagnosed with a fractured C2 vertebra. “I saw William Bonnet crashing in front of me while he was coming to help me. That was traumatic,” Pinot said. “After that, my legs were gone, I had no strength, nothing. He fell at 80kph and I really didn’t feel good after that.”Bardet and Ag2r-La Mondiale
Pinot was not the only home favourite to concede ground to the principal favourites on the Mur de Huy. Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) would have earmarked this stage when the parcours was unveiled last October but he couldn’t match the prodigious power put out by Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador, far less the startling accelerations of Froome and the stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Bardet finished the stage in 21st place, 36 seconds back and is now 26th overall, 2:54 down on Froome. His companion Jean-Christophe Péraud fared better, placing 16th at 24 seconds (he is now 21st overall at 2:07) but Ag2r’s best performer on the day turned out to be the former mountain biker Alexis Vuillermoz, who took a fine third, just four seconds down on Rodriguez and Froome. “On the Tour de France people only remember victories, but given my career so far, this is hugely satisfying,” said Vuillermoz. “Now that I see I’m climbing well I want to perform a role for Bardet and Péraud in the mountains.” The local headlines, of course, will be all for Pinot on Tuesday morning, with Cyrille Guimard already discounting his chances of becoming the first home Tour winner in 30 years. “When you’re three minutes down on Froome, it’s hard to say in a credible way: ‘I can win the Tour,’” Bernard Hinault’s former mentor said on RMC radio. Pinot was scarcely more hopeful, admitting concern at the prospect of losing still more time on Tuesday’s stage over the pavé en route to Cambrai, though he added that the balance sheet for the Tour’s tough opening week would only be drawn up following the stage 9 team time trial in Brittany. “I’m pessimistic for tomorrow, at least if my legs are like this, because on the pavé it’s decided by your strength,” Pinot said just before boarding the bus. “I won’t make a plan for tomorrow. I’m going to see how I recover, how I sleep but if I feel like I did today, then it’s going to be hard. But we need to wait until Sunday to take stock of the situation and our objectives.”