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Thibaut Pinot soloed to a brilliant victory on stage 8
French talent marks debut Tour with victory
The French youngster had hoped to shine on Saturday on the stiff climb to La Planche des Belles Filles – a stone's throw from his hometown of Mélisey – but he found there was little scope for his brand of invention when faced with the brute force of Team Sky, and he came home in 15th place.
On the rugged road over the border into Switzerland, however, Pinot more than made amends, delivering a performance that married his natural class to a tactical savvy rarely seen in such a precocious talent – at just 22 years of age, Pinot is the youngest rider in this year's Tour.
Fittingly, the genesis of Pinot's win was to be found in an act of youthful defiance. Though instructed by his team to stick to the yellow jersey group, he opted to venture up the road as part of a sizable chase group that formed midway through the stage, mindful that his teammate Jérémy Roy at the head of the race and would later prove to be a most useful ally.
"At the briefing, it wasn't foreseen that I would attack today but I decided to do it anyway," Pinot explained afterwards. "I was told to stay with the big leaders, but on the first two climbs I could see that there were riders everywhere, so I figured it was better to be in front than at the back.
"We had Jérémy Roy up front, which made it easier for me because I didn't have to work in the group behind. Then when we caught up to him, he worked a lot for me."
By the time Pinot's group made it to Roy, he had been dropped Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana), and the Swede held a lead of two minutes on the penultimate climb of the Côte de la Caquerelle with 30 kilometres remaining. It was at this point that Pinot sensed his opportunity, stylishly hitting the front of the chase group and eventually pulling clear with Tony Gallopin (RadioShack-Nissan) for company.
On the final climb, the 1st category Col de la Croix, Pinot shed Gallopin, and all but ambled across to Kessiakoff, catching and passing the Swede within sight of the summit. "The gap was 1:25 and I had no choice, I had to attack from the bottom," he said. "I got goose bumps when I saw that Kessiakoff was 15 seconds behind me at the top."
Though familiar with the first five climbs on the day's course, Pinot had never tackled the Col de la Croix before, and was mindful of potential pitfalls on the descent. Once he reached the flat run-in to the line, his focus switched from edging away from a flagging Kessiakoff to fending off an elite chasing group behind.
"It was a very technical descent, so I didn't take any risks on the way down," he said. "Once I got to 7-8 km to go, I stopped worrying about Kessiakoff because he was losing time, but I was worried about the peloton, because there was a headwind and I was knackered."
At this point, Pinot's garrulous manager Marc Madiot made his own cameo, repeatedly popping his head out of the window of the team car to bellow instructions at his rider. How intently Pinot listened is a moot point, but the presence of the team car was nonetheless instructive, and he held on to win the stage by 26 seconds from Cadel Evans (BMC). "I knew that if the car was still behind me, it meant that I still had a gap of at least 30 seconds," Pinot smiled, adding: "He was encouraging me, it was a boost."
Snapped up from the CC Étupes stable ahead of the 2010 season, Pinot has shown regular and steady improvement at FDJ-BigMat, including some fine showings at the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2011 and at the recent Tour de Suisse. Indeed, it was on the back of his showing in Switzerland that Pinot secured his ticket to La Grande Boucle, in spite of Madiot's initial misgivings.
"He didn't want to bring me because he wanted to protect me," Pinot said. "I was supposed to go to the Vuelta, but I kept asking to go to the Tour de France."
Pinot's win moves him up to 13th place overall, and he is also within striking distance of the white jersey of Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis). With the dearth of French success thus far at the Tour, Pinot's star is only likely to rise in his home country over the coming two weeks.
27 years into the longest Tour drought in the home nation's history, French successes at the race have been provided by perspiration as much as by inspiration in the intervening period, but Pinot's stylish victory was – perhaps – an augury of brighter days to come.
Yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins (Sky) spoke for many when he delivered his assessment of the day's winner. "The first time I saw him was last year at the Dauphiné and I noticed that he had something special about him from the way he pedalled and carried himself on the bike," he said admiringly.