It was a tale of two time trials for the young French favourites. The opening day of the Tour de France in Utrecht could hardly have gone any better for Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), who sprung something of a surprise by posting a quicker time than all of the other overall contenders, as he placed 18th on the stage, just 41 seconds down on winner Rohan Dennis (BMC).
For Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), however, the test went more or less in line with his expectations. To put it mildly, he will be mightily relieved that he does not have to face another individual time trial in this Tour, having finished 145th in this one, some 1:34 down.
Having finished third overall in the Tour de France in Paris a year ago, convention said that Pinot ought to have been the third-last man down the start ramp on Saturday afternoon. Instead, however, he left that honour to his teammate Arnaud Démare and instead opted to set out earlier than almost every other general classification contender.
“I didn’t expect to do much better. It’s difficult for climbers on a circuit for specialists. I know that this is my weak point and I saw very quickly that I wasn’t on a good day. It was difficult mentally at that point and my legs just weren’t responding today.” - Bardet
“I like to do the time trial as quickly as possible after the morning training ride,” Pinot explained. “That allows me to get back to the hotel and recover sooner than the others. It’s a long build-up to the race in the hotel, you just want to get out there and ride, so it was good to go early.”
It proved a sound decision. Of the other overall contenders, only Nairo Quintana (Movistar) had gone out sooner, citing concerns about the potential for windier conditions in the late afternoon, and when Pinot crossed the line, he was told that he had gained 20 seconds on the Colombian.
“Tomorrow, everybody could lose two minutes. When you’re thinking about Paris, 20 seconds is nothing,” Pinot said. “It was the kind of time trial that I liked, mainly on straight roads, so you could build up speed and then hold it. I wanted to reassure myself and I’m in line with the time I had in mind, it’s good.”
Pinot was that and more. He wasn’t to know it at the time, but he would end the day as the first of the potential podium finishers in Paris – a second ahead of Tejay van Garderen (BMC), two seconds up on Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), 9 seconds clear of Chris Froome (Sky) and 17 ahead of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo).
A remarkable feat considering that most expected that the opening nine days of the race would amount to little more than damage limitation for the climber. Despite his showing on Saturday, however, Pinot preached caution.
“Everybody’s worried about the wind tomorrow and we’ll have to pay attention,” he said. “I hope it goes ok. They’re predicting big gusts. We’re prepared for everything, there’s going to be a lot of elbows and jostling for position.”
Bardet gets past his weak point
Bardet cut a rather more downcast figure when he rolled to a halt in the same spot as Pinot over an hour later. Even though the final wave of riders – including Froome, Nibali and his Ag2r teammate Jean-Christope Péraud – had yet to start, he surely sensed that he was about to concede ground to all of the overall contenders.
“I knew that it would be one of the most difficult stages for me,” Bardet told a group of reporters, having paused to catch his breath, his head bowed, before speaking.
“I didn’t expect to do much better. It’s difficult for climbers on a circuit for specialists. I know that this is my weak point and I saw very quickly that I wasn’t on a good day. It was difficult mentally at that point and my legs just weren’t responding today.”
Jean-Christophe Péraud, second overall a year ago, arrives at the Tour with the lowest external expectation of the three French favourites, and his abandon during the time trial at the national championships last week had raced concerns about his condition.
The veteran held his end up well on Saturday, however. Though he placed only 50th on the stage, 59 seconds down on Dennis, he more or less broke even with the overall favourites, finishing just a second down on Contador.
“I think that’s ok,” Péraud said. “I’m still not at my top level but it’s still pretty close to the time I’d set for myself so as not to seem too ridiculous. I’m getting closer to my place.”