When Thibaut Pinot emerged from anti-doping atop Chamrousse after stage 13 of the Tour de France, the normally garrulous FDJ.fr manager Marc Madiot simply greeted him with a slap on the back and handed him a bike for the kilometre-long ride to the team bus.
After pedalling languidly down slope, past a corridor of excited cries of "Bravo Thibaut," Pinot arrived at the bus to find a phalanx of television crews was already in place. It parted slowly to allow him to settle his bike on the rollers and begin his warm down, before engulfing him once again.
While his fellow countryman Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) moved up to third overall and retained the white jersey, Pinot’s was the story of the day as far as the home media was concerned.
The Frenchman fractured the yellow jersey group when he accelerated with some 12 kilometres remaining, and while he was unable to match Vincenzo Nibali’s winning move 6 kilometres later, he helped himself to fifth on the stage and edges up to fourth place overall, 4:40 down on Nibali but just 16 seconds shy of Bardet.
"I like long climbs, so if I didn’t attack here, I was never going to attack at all," Pinot said matter-of-factly. "I wanted to make things harder because people were starting to watch one another in the leading group.
"I’d say I had normal legs today, but I managed to make it harder all the same. I needed to make a move here and try something against my rivals for a place in the top five or on the podium."
Pinot began the Tour with the stated aim of matching his 2012 achievement of a place in the top in Paris, but with each passing day, his ambitions are being revised upwards. His facility on the climbs seems to be bettered only by that of Nibali, while other general classification contenders continue to fall by the wayside. On Friday, it was the turn of Richie Porte (Sky), who cracked and conceded 8:48.
"It’s good news that a rouleur like Porte lost a lot of time today but on the other hand you still have guys like [Tejay] van Garderen and [Jean-Christophe] Péraud who are close behind and strong in the time trial," Pinot said.
It was more of an irritation than a compliment, but Alejandro Valverde’s approach to the final climb was emblematic of the respect Pinot now commands. After Nibali’s winning attack, the Spaniard left the chasing to Pinot, claiming fatigue, yet he made an unsuccessful attempt to jump away from him with five kilometres remaining, and then out-sprinted him for fourth on the stage.
"There wasn’t great understanding with Valverde and that made it harder to get the biggest gap possible on the riders behind us," Pinot said. "It cost us time. We wouldn’t have caught Nibali but we would have gained more time on the rest."
As Nibali’s gap yawned open – he would be 50 seconds clear at the summit – Pinot could be seen gesturing to Valverde, asking him to make some contribution to the pace-setting. "When he was on my wheel, he told me that he was à bloc. I believed it but then he attacked me. I don’t understand why he sat on my wheel for the final kilometres and then jumped away in the sprint at the end. I didn’t understand that tactic, but that was his game."
Duel at the summit
Friday morning’s edition of L’Équipe had featured both Pinot and Bardet on the cover, exhorting the two young French hopefuls to seize the opportunity and go on the offensive as the race entered the Alps. At one point, it looked as though Pinot would divest Bardet of the white jersey of best young rider, but the Ag2r-La Mondiale man limited his losses in the finale to maintain a slender lead.
Not since the mid-1990s has France had two podium contenders at once this late in the Tour, and there is growing local excitement about the prospect of a tête-à-tête between two riders who were only born in 1990 – all the more so, given that Bardet maintains that Saturday’s final climb to Risoul suits him better than Chamrousse.
Pinot, however, quietly downplayed the idea of a French duel in the days ahead. "No, you can only call something a duel when it’s for winning the Tour, or for stage wins. We’re just battling for places," Pinot said.
And Pinot was careful, too, to smartly dismiss any notion of bridging France’s 29-year gap without an overall winner in Paris. "I don’t about victory," he said. "Nibali would have to have a real jour sans. For now, it’s Nibali and then there’s everybody else."