"I felt good, so I had to try today, although Nibali was too strong," a satisfied Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) told the press after finishing second to Tour de France leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on stage 18 on Thursday.
Pinot has also moved up to second place overall, albeit a huge 7:10 down on Nibali, and the fight for second place is now set to be even more strongly contested than ever after Movistar's Alejandro Valverde lost time and dropped from second to fourth, and Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r) moved into a podium position, up to third place overall from fourth.
"There are now just 15 seconds separating second place and fourth place, and I'm probably the least accomplished time-triallist between the three of us [Pinot, Péraud and Valverde]," Pinot pointed out, referring to the 54-kilometre time trial to come on stage 20 on Saturday. "I'll have to have a great day to hold off Péraud, who is very good against the clock, while Valverde is of course the current Spanish time-trial champion."
On Thursday's 18th stage, Valverde attacked his rivals on the descent of the Col du Tourmalet, but Pinot said that he'd viewed the move "as a sign of weakness on his part", and was proved right on the final climb to Hautacam when Pinot's attack distanced the Spaniard, who finished 49 seconds behind him and had to give up his second place to the Frenchman, too.
"And then when Nibali attacked [on the Hautacam], I knew that I shouldn't panic, and that I shouldn't try to follow him, either, as I knew I'd be in danger of putting myself into the red. On the other hand, I still wanted to try to gain some time on Valverde and Péraud, which I managed to do when it came to Valverde, but less so in the case of Péraud," explained Pinot, who nevertheless managed to grab a further five seconds on his compatriot, and is now 13 seconds ahead of Péraud.
"I managed to gain more time for the white jersey, too," Pinot added, referring to the 43 seconds he beat a disappointed Romain Bardet (Ag2r) by on the stage, which means that he now leads the best-young-rider competition over Bardet by 2:17.
"The time trial is now going to be decisive for the podium," continued Pinot. "I know that I've got better against the clock, although I've not had any recent references in time trials over 50 kilometres. But I've finished in the top 10 in time trials at the Tour of the Basque Country, the Tour of Romandy and the Tour of Switzerland this year, so I've definitely improved.
"To be in second place now on Thursday, and probably still on Friday evening [after what is a flat 19th stage] is great, but what counts is Sunday evening in Paris. I mustn't waste all the good work we've done since the start of the Tour to get me into this position, as I have no desire to finish on the bottom step of the podium."