Frenchman looks to fend off Péraud and Valverde in the time trial
FDJ.fr manager Marc Madiot breezed into the mixed zone in Bergerac after stage 19 of the Tour de France, perhaps as much to seek shelter from the rain as to talk to a group of radio reporters, but he was happy to give his two cents' worth all the same.
"They said it was going to be a transition stage but it was anything but a transition stage," Madiot said of a rain-soaked afternoon that will have done little to calm nerves and soothe legs ahead of Saturday’s time trial to Périgueux.
When Madiot's young charge Thibaut Pinot reached the same point a little while later, he seemed rather less concerned than his manager about the exertions of the 208-kilometre haul from Maubourguet, and cheerfully noted that he was simply glad to avoid the crash that took place in the finale.
"You needed to be very attentive because I knew it was going to be a very complicated stage. You had to be well-positioned all day long," Pinot said. "The crash happened quite close to me and it was just a question of luck really that I wasn't caught up in it. It was a tense finale again.”
A different kind of tension awaits Pinot over the next 24 hours. The youngster is on the brink of becoming the first Frenchman to finish on the podium of the Tour since Richard Virenque in 1997, but a mammoth 54-kilometre time trial in the Dordogne lies between him and the acclaim of the Champs-Élysées.
Pinot is just 13 seconds ahead of Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and 15 clear of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). While he is all but assured of bringing the white jersey of best young rider to Paris, he risks sliding off the podium that he really covets.
"The mental aspect will be very important," Madiot had warned, a stance reiterated by Pinot shortly afterwards: "Tomorrow, I'll need to have a cool head and do better than the others."
On paper, Péraud is the strongest time triallist of the three, while Valverde carries considerably more experience, but Pinot was optimistic about his prospects of defending his position.
As a raw 22-year-old in 2012, Pinot retained his 10th place overall in the equivalent stage in Chartres, and he has shown significant progress against the watch since, although he was beaten by both Péraud and Valverde in the 25km test at the Tour of the Basque Country in April.
"I'd look more to the time trials from the Tour de Romandie or the Tour de Suisse, which were more for rouleurs," Pinot said. "And tomorrow is a different time trial, after three weeks and 54 kilometres, but if I have good legs, then why not?
"In any case, I'm not stressed at all. I quite like time trials. I've worked on the track since the beginning of last year, working on my position and I hope the work will pay off here too."
Pinot has not yet reconnoitred the time trial, and will do so for the first time on Saturday morning. For now, he is relying on the advice of teammate Mickaël Delage. "He lives around here and he's given me some info," Pinot explained. "I know that it's a hard time trial but it's not very technical."
It's a truism, but the final time trial of a Grand Tour often can be as much about remaining energy as prowess against the watch. Asked to place his level of fatigue on a scale from one to ten, Pinot's features creased into a smile. "On a scale of ten I'm at twelve," he joked. "But everybody is tired at this stage."
Unlike during his stage victory at Porrentruy two years ago, Pinot will not have Madiot bellowing encouragement during his solitary effort on Saturday. Instead, he will be followed by directeur sportif Yvon Madiot, his brother and coach Julien, and a mechanic.
"Tomorrow, I won't have excuses," Pinot said. "The two strongest riders of the three will be on the podium and I hope I’m up to it."
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