Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) lost the Tour of the Alps to Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) by just six seconds in 2017 but promised not to miss out this year. The Frenchman blew the race apart with his instinctive aggression on stage 3 to Merano and pulled on the fuchsia leader's jersey.
Pinot dragged an attack away on the Passo della Mendola with 50km to go with long surges of speed, exposing the weakness of both Team Sky and Astana. The attack gained a minute on the long climb as Astana and Team Sky argued about who should lead the chase. The time gradually came down as Kenny Elissonde, again, gave his all for his Team Sky leader Chris Froome.
The Frenchman's move was eventually nullified near Merano after Froome tucked and dived his way down the long descent. Pinot's descending skills again let him down, but he still had the strength to win the sprint behind lone, late-race attacker Ben O'Connor (Dimension Data), who was initially part of Pinot's move.
Race leader Ivan Sosa (Androni Giocattoli) crashed on the descent, losing four minutes and so Pinot's name rang out across Merano as he was declared the new race leader.
"It's great to take the jersey. It makes up for last year," Pinot explained after the podium ceremony.
"Thomas attacked and gained time on me while I pulled back some seconds thanks to time bonuses. But he was stronger, and it wasn’t enough to win."
Pinot races on instinct and even his attack on the Passo della Mendola was not planned. His non-scientific approach means he occasionally misses out on success, but he believes natural aggression is always more rewarding than racing by following a power metre.
"I was planned to stay relaxed today, but then I went for it," he said.
"At the foot of the Mendola, I saw Aru attack and so went with him and then kept going. It was a risk, but it paid off in the end."
Natural aggression but no comment on Froome
Pinot is not against using a power metre in training under the supervision of his coach and brother Julien. He would never, however, accept racing like Froome and Team Sky, who appear to calibrate their efforts based on what they read on their computer screens.
Pinot prefers a more carpe diem approach.
"I prefer to race on instinct, but victory in a Grand Tour also depends on the collective strength of the team," he said mixing pragmatism with panache.
"Chris and Team Sky were very strong at the Tour de France last year, while the French riders weren't as good. I hope we will be aggressive. We can often seize the day, so that we can get a result at the Giro d'Italia."
Pinot prefers to avoid controversy as much as he does data. He is passionate about races but avoids making strong statements out of the saddle. He has stayed away from the Reichenbach-Moscon case after the FDJ team accused Moscon of causing Reichenbach to crash during last year's Tre Valli Varesine, sparking a UCI disciplinary case.
Pinot equally avoided commenting on Froome's salbutamol case.
"Je ne sais pas…" he said with his mouth turned down in a sign of indifference when asked about racing against Froome at the Giro d'Italia while the Team Sky leader awaits a final verdict on his salbutamol case.
"I've never dwell on it much. I go to races to race and hopefully to win. I have to stay focused on my race and try to get the best result possible."
Only victory is beautiful, even better if in Italy
Pinot's love for Italy is clear to see, thanks to a tattoo on his arm that reads: Solo la vittoria è bella – 'Only victory is beautiful'. He suffers under the weight of expectation on his home roads at the Tour de France, preferring the unpredictability of Italian races and their often harder finales.
He has a longstanding pedigree south of the Alps, dating back to his amateur days and his breakout win at the 2009 Giro della Valle d'Aosta. As a young professional he won the 2011 Settimana Lombarda. In recent seasons, Pinot has impressed at the Tour of Lombardy, where he placed third in 2015, Tirreno-Adriatico, where he placed third in 2017 and at the Tour of the Alps, where he won a stage last year and came close to victory.
This year, a final victory at the Tour of the Alps seems within reach and would suggest his limited race programme before the Giro d’Italia has proven the right option. Pinot leads Pozzovivo by 15 seconds, with Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) third also at 15 seconds. Froome is fourth at 16 seconds, with Pinot confident of his chances of picking up time bonuses in sprint finishes.
Thursday's 134km fourth stage is from Chiusa to Lienz in Austria, with only the late 6.7km Bannberg climb and the descent to the finish to worry about. Friday's final 164km stage, with three laps of a hilly Innsbruck circuit similar to the World Championships course, is tougher but not impossible for Groupama-FDJ to control.
"Hopefully things will be different this year and that I can keep the jersey to the very end of the race. If I lose by four seconds this year I’ll be disappointed," Pinot said, with a hint of confidence.
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