When Thibaut Pinot emerges from the FDJ.fr bus each morning on the Tour de France, there is a cluster of microphones and cameras waiting for him at the bottom of the steps. Such is the lot of a home grown general classification contender in the white heat of July.
Pinot wore the tag of young hopeful with insouciance during his sparkling Tour debut in 2012, but found the burden of increased expectation a little more unwieldy twelve months ago. This time around, he seems to have struck a better balance – aware of his possibilities, but not overawed by them.
On Thursday morning in Bourg-en-Bresse, on the eve of the Tour’s entry into the Alps, Pinot fielded questions about his prospects with understated calm, and even managed to bite his lip when one local reporter took it upon himself to remind the 24-year-old to drink during the warm stage.
Currently 6th at 3:47 from Vincenzo Nibali, Pinot is just a minute off a podium place as the Tour enters his favoured terrain. The long, difficult but evenly-graded climb to Chamrousse on Friday ought to be to the liking of the youngster, who already shone with second place behind Nibali on home roads at La Planche des Belles Filles on Monday.
“It’s the first real summit finish. Charmousse is big climb and you could say that it’s the first big rendezvous for the climbers. But it’s a climb that I like a lot. It’s long and regular: it’s a climb where something can happen,” Pinot said.
For all of the excitement in the Vosges and Nibali’s hefty overall lead, the Tour has gone almost two weeks without reaching its first major mountain range. Pinot expects more significant time gaps to develop on Friday and Saturday’s back-to-back summit finishes at Chamrousse and Risoul, particularly given the soaring temperatures.
“I think that there could be gaps already this weekend, before we get into the Pyrenees, especially because it’s hot,” he said. “Although at the same time, it shouldn’t be massively hot up on the final climbs, certainly compared to how it might be in the Pyrenees. But it will depend a bit on the heat, in the Alps and again in the Pyrenees next week. The hotter it is, the bigger the gaps will be.”
By his own admission, Pinot is no fan of racing in extreme heat – the cool, rainy conditions in the Vosges were more to his liking – but he was pleased with how he had emerged from the first high temperatures of this Tour during the week.
“Yesterday [Wednesday] went by ok, as there were no cols and we were riding pretty quick, so there was a bit of air to cool us,” he said. “If it’s very hot on Friday, then that’s a bit intimidating but if it goes fast in the valley it shouldn’t be too bad.”
Pinot’s fellow French hopeful Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), currently 5th overall and in the white jersey of best young rider, has hinted that he will look to go on the attack in the high mountains. There is growing anticipation in the home press that the two young Frenchmen will ride aggressively in search of podium places in Paris, but Pinot was pragmatic in his assessment.
“Yes, of course I’d love to go on the offensive, but saying it and doing it are two very different things. I’ll see how my legs are, but yes, if I’m feeling good, then I can have a go,” he said. “Although when you’re high up on GC, you can’t attack early in the stage. If you attack, you have to go on the last climb.”