Usually Thibaut Pinot means Tour de France, big crowds and intense pressure, but FDJ's climber was seen in a new light last weekend at the Tour du Gévaudan, a two-day race around Mende. At ease, smiling, and taking time with the fans, he rode to overall victory after capturing stage 1 on a summit finish.
The Alpe d'Huez victor at this year's Tour de France not only had "fun" on the hilly and narrow roads near the Massif Central; he also maintained his position among the best French climbers who fought against him - notably Romain Bardet and Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale). The result is the icing on top of the cake after a "pretty decent season" (fourth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, Tour of Romandie and Tour de Suisse) and ahead of his final objective - the Tour of Lombardy, which takes place next Sunday in Italy.
Cyclingnews: Is it a special feeling to claim your first stage race since the Settimana Lombarda in 2011?
Thibaut Pinot: I am relaxed and happy. I didn't get so many opportunities to win overall given my focus on WorldTour events where many big names compete. The Tour du Gévaudan is one of the 'smaller' but very important races I have on my calendar. The other one was the Critérium International last April in Corsica, and I failed to win. I certainly put too much pressure on myself there and I made tactical mistakes. On the contrary I felt relaxed at the Tour du Gévaudan, I made the right moves at the right time, and I had some great support from my teammates. In short, it was a good test.
CN: Did you also take a sort of revenge on the 'Montée Jalabert', above Mende, two months after Steve Cummings defeated you on the top of that climb at the Tour?
TP: I certainly had some memories when we climbed the 'Montée Jalabert' twice on Sunday on the last stage – we took a different direction near the summit and could go to a downhill while the Tour only uses the ascent. But I never attacked there because my team was controlling. Instead I launched an attack on the final climb on stage 1 to Florac. My participation at the Tour du Gévaudan was not a question of revenge. More importantly I needed fun. There are not too many races for climbers in France and Gévaudan is really tough. I came two days earlier and I trained on the parcours. I was really excited and sent a text message to the organiser: "This is a true cycling course!"
CN: Most of the best French climbers were at the start. What do you think about Thomas Voeckler, 36-years-old, who can challenge the young generation and finished second overall behind you?
TP: He is still very strong. I had to give everything on the sprint in stage 1. I was in pretty good condition though, and he could follow my attacks. He only lost by 20 centimetres. Voeckler will be one of the men to beat in the last races of the season.
CN: What about Alexis Vuillermoz who claimed stage 2 in a sprint just ahead of you?
TP: His acceleration in uphill finishes is astonishing. To me he looks more and more like Joaquim Rodriguez. We already saw his skills in the Tour de France [AG2R La Mondiale's rider went 2nd on the Mur de Huy and won on Mûr de Bretagne, Ed.]. Moreover Alexis is an easy-going and nice guy - I really like him.
CN: Talking about your main rivals, Romain Bardet was again one of them at the Tour du Gévaudan, trying to attack on the 'Montée Jalabert'. Is your rivalry something stimulating?
TP: Yes, this is a healthy rivalry. We were together last month in Rio for the Olympics test-event and we had some good time together. Off the bike I can say we are friends. In races the fight is honest and motivating. We are a good bunch of young French riders and I feel I must train hard to keep my position. Look at another rider like Pierre Latour [AG2R La Mondiale's neo-pro was third at Route du Sud in June, behind Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana, Ed.]: he is rising fast and kicking my ass!
CN: You said you put too much pressure on yourself earlier in the year. Why is the situation different now?
TP: Because I have had a quite decent season since then. Good results always help to be relaxed.
CN: You also had a good break this summer didn't you?
TP: Yes but not immediately after the Tour. I went to the Clasica San Sebastian [he finished 20th] and to the race in Rio [6th], which I took really seriously. Then I had an almost 10-day break at La Môle, not far from the Mediterranean Sea. That is where I completely switched off.
CN: Did you reflect on your performance on the Tour de France, though?
TP: I think now my Tour de France was fairly good. I was in trouble on the first part but I never gave up. I didn't manage third like the previous year but the whole ride is similarly satisfying. I prefer to take victory at the Alpe d'Huez and a 16th place overall than a seventh or eighth place with no stage win. Well... If I really can chose, I'd go for a higher placing and one or two victories, but in a difficult context like this year I did everything I could.
CN: Why was the race so hard for you?
TP: I was sick from the first week. Like many riders, I didn't like the heat either. I felt much better after stage 12 to Plateau de Beille, in the rain.
CN: There was not a matter of pressure?
TP: I had some high pressure, of course. But I didn't collapse. If I couldn't have been able to cope with pressure, I couldn't have won at the Alpe d'Huez.
CN: What do you need to change then?
TP: Definitely several details. But I don't see big mistakes to fix after the 2015 Tour. Again, I was sick. I just hope I won't get a chest infection in 2016.
CN: Is that crazy to always talk about the Grande Boucle?
TP: Yes, it is. This is a race I can't skip. I would love racing the Giro and trying to win it instead of the Tour de France, but this option is not possible at the moment. However, I don't complain, this is my job. I want to give my best at the Tour. But this is not everything. I came to the Tour du Gévaudan to enjoy a different atmosphere and show people there is a lot to do in a year. By the way I have had 70 race days so far this season and I'm not on my holidays yet.
CN: Time to tell us about Lombardy, your next goal. Why do you like this race?
TP: Because of cycling's history and the Italian scenery. Italy means cycling to me. I not only love this race but the two other I will do beforehand - the Tre Valli Varesine (30th September) and Milan-Turin the day after, with a very beautiful finish. Last year I wasn't fit enough at Lombardy [14th] so I added these two one-day races to my calendar.
CN: What do you need to win the 'Race of Falling Leaves'?
TP: Good legs and good luck. I am not sure this is a question of experience because the course changes every year. I know cycling history, I watched many Classics on television so I have a lot of respect for them. I could race Liège-Bastogne-Liège one day but not in 2016 because I prefer to focus on the Tour de Romandie. This is why Lombardy is something unique for me.