At 22 years of age, Thibaut Pinot will be the youngest rider at the Tour de France but while such precocious debutants are normally simply happy to be part of the spectacle, the FDJ-BigMat talent is determined to test himself against the best over the course of the three weeks.
“I think I’ll be the youngest rider at the Tour de France, so above all I’m going there to gain some experience and enjoy myself by trying to get a result on a mountain stage,” Pinot told Cyclingnews on Tuesday evening, in between packing his suitcase for Liège.
After a brief but brilliant amateur career at CC Etupes, capped by his stylish win at the prestigious Giro della Valle d’Aosta, Pinot was fast-tracked into the professional ranks in 2010 and his reputation has grown exponentially ever since. A strong final weekend at the Critérium du Dauphiné last season set him up for a fine summer of racing on Italian roads, and that progress has continued in 2012.
Such was the assuredness of Pinot’s showing against some of the heads of state of the peloton at the recent Tour de Suisse that FDJ-BigMat manager Marc Madiot was moved to row back on his own instincts and thrust the youngster into the Tour line-up.
“I did a very nice Tour de Suisse,” Pinot said, matter-of-factly. “I was in the top 10 of the GC until the final Saturday, so I saw that I was able to follow the best climbers there and that I was capable of going to the Tour de France.”
Pinot’s place in the Tour team was only confirmed at the weekend, once it became apparent that Arnold Jeannesson would not be fit enough to compete. Indeed, Pinot was initially slated to ride the Vuelta a España, partly because the race’s ten summit finishes are well-suited to his gifts as an explosive climber, but perhaps primarily to shield him a little longer from the expectant glare of the French public.
In the event, Pinot’s late selection and the home media’s concern over Thomas Voeckler’s knee injury have helped to keep him out of the spotlight, and he has been spared the kind of giddy anticipation that saw Rémi Di Grégorio grace the cover of Vélo Magazine’s race preview ahead of his ill-fated Tour debut in 2007.
“The team was thinking of sending me to the Vuelta so that I wouldn’t have too much pressure on my shoulders at the Tour because there’s a lot of expectation surrounding me,” Pinot said. “Maybe the route of the Vuelta would have been better suited to me, but it’s the Tour de France that makes me dream. Besides, at the Tour de Suisse I saw that I was in the form to follow the best in the mountains, so I thought why not take advantage of that.”
Impressive as Pinot was on the mountain stages to Verbier and Arosa during the Tour de Suisse, his race ultimately finished in disappointment. Lying in the top 10 on the morning of the final stage, he was forced to pull out of the race after being hit by sunstroke.
“I did a really good stage on the Saturday on the climb to Arosa but that evening I fell ill,” he said. “I was running a temperature and I had a headache. The following morning I had no strength and I still had a temperature. It’s the first time that I suffered from the heat like that in a race and given how well I was going, that was a big disappointment.”
Even so, Pinot could take solace from the way in which he kept pace with the likes of Robert Gesink and Tom Danielson in Switzerland, and his aim is to see if he can repeat the feat in the white heat of July. “I really didn’t think I would be up with them at their level just before the Tour de France,” he said. “If I was still up there with guys like Danielson, Gesink and Valverde in the mountains at the Tour, then I’d be very happy.”
While Pinot will be afforded the freedom to express himself on the roads of France this July, he stressed that he would not be the outright leader of an FDJ-BigMat team whose primary currency at the Tour is stage victories. “We’ll take stock after the opening week because that could be dangerous with crashes and echelons,” he said. “We’ll see where I am after the Planche des Belles Filles stage but really I’ll be taking it one stage at a time.”
Stage 7 to La Planche des Belles Filles, of course, is of particular resonance for Pinot. The race passes through his home town of Mélisey – where his father is the mayor – and he trains regularly on the slopes of the final climb itself. “They’re roads that I know by heart so I hope I’m able to ride well there,” he said.
“It’s quite a steep climb but also pretty regular. Above all, the final 500 metres are really very difficult. It’s quite a short climb so the gaps won’t be very big, but it suits a puncheur-grimpeur. It’s the stage that makes me dream the most, of course.”
Those dreams began when he watched the Tour from the roadside when it passed through his home region during its sodden opening week in 1996. Along with his brother Julien, now a coach at FDJ-BigMat after a heart problem cut short his racing career, the six-year-old Pinot anxiously scanned the passing peloton in search of his first idol, Miguel Indurain.
It was no real surprise, then, that Pinot opted for the Tour over the Vuelta. “It’s true that this year's Vuelta has 10 summit finishes but it’s not every year that the Tour year passes by your home."