Thibaut Pinot’s words of caution after Saturday’s opening time trial proved to be prescient. After gaining time in Utrecht on the principal contenders for overall victory at this Tour de France, the FDJ man had moved swiftly to put a dampener on French expectations, which haven’t reached such heights, perhaps, since the mid-1990s. “A 20-second advantage means nothing,” he said calmly.
So it proved on Sunday. Inevitably, strong winds and heavy rain buffeted the peloton as it approached the Dutch province of Zelande, made up largely of land reclaimed from the North Sea over the centuries, and even despite all the forewarnings, a period of chaos ensued.
As Etixx-QuickStep made merry at the head of the bunch inside the final 50 kilometres, Pinot was among those caught on the wrong side of the splits, along with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
Within five kilometres, the deficit to the front group, which contained Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), was already 30 seconds and despite Astana and Movistar’s attempts to play Hans Brinker, it would increase to 1:28 by the time the chasers reached the finish at the Oosterscheldekering, the Delta Works, the Netherlands’ remarkable series of dams, dykes and storm surge barriers.
“We were well prepared but we didn’t expected to be hit by this storm after we left Rotterdam,” Pinot told reporters as he warmed down on the turbo trainer outside the FDJ bus. “That was the worst moment, with a lot of roundabouts and crashes. There was panic.”
In a departure from years past, when FDJ looked to animate the Tour by entering breaks from the opening stage, the squad is devoted entirely to Pinot this time around, with Marc Madiot ordering his men to protect their leader and save themselves as best they can for next Sunday’s team time trial in Brittany.
“At the beginning, I was in the front group and I had Mathieu Ladagnous just in front of me, but then a guy got in between us and allowed a gap to open,” Pinot said. “I was two wheels short of being on the right side of the split. It’s a thing of nothing but then echelons always form because of a detail like that.”
The running account for the frantic opening week of this Tour is still very much open, however, and Pinot will hope that when all of the little details are totted up – aggregated, even – next weekend, his balance sheet will be a positive one.
“It could have been worse today, we could have seen more crashes,” he said. “On the television, that must have been a nice stage to watch, but it could all kick off again in the days to come, and we haven’t even reached the cobbles yet.”
On Monday, at least in theory, Pinot should find more amenable terrain when the Tour crosses into Belgium and follows the finale of Flèche Wallonne to finish atop the Mur de Huy, though, as he pointed out, the heavy lifting will have to be done before the climb itself. “It’s going to be decided by positioning, you’ll need good legs to be well placed at the right moment,” he said.
Pinot now lies 31st overall, 2:07 behind yellow jersey Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), 1:19 down on Froome and 1:07 off Contador, though he remains just ahead of both Nibali and Quintana. After Pinot climbed aboard the FDJ bus, however, his manager Marc Madiot was quick to put the day’s travails into perspective when asked if he was concerned about the time lost. “A lot of riders lost a lot of time,” he said succinctly.