The first mountain stage of the Tour de France is always a test, but the examination felt particularly thorough for Thibaut Pinot at La Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday. The heat – literal and figurative – of a French July has at times proved unbearable for the Groupama-FDJ leader over the years, and the burden of expectation could scarcely have been heavier as he raced on his own training roads on stage 6.
"Hero’s welcome awaits Thibaut Pinot at La Planche des Belles Filles," read the headline in Thursday's L'Est Republicain, the newspaper that serves the rider's native region of Franche-Comté. "Thibaut – La Planche is for you!" read the vast banner at the base of the final ascent. On the final, 24 per cent ramps towards the line, the asphalt had been repeatedly daubed with the same two syllables: "Pinot."
Despite that outpouring of affection, Pinot set out from Mulhouse mindful that he would be judged squarely by whether his name appeared at the top end of the results sheet. The timekeepers don’t keep a tally of claps and cheers, but Pinot they were a useful guide to the Frenchman’s progress up the final climb all the same.
Three kilometres from home, when teammate David Gaudu moved to the front of the reduced yellow jersey group with Pinot on his wheel, the fans watching on the screen at the flamme rouge began banging excitedly on the advertising hoardings, as though sending news of the local boy's form by induction up the mountainside.
When the yellow jersey group fragmented under Geraint Thomas' forcing in the wickedly steep final kilometre, the roadside crowds seemed to be almost willing Pinot back up to his wheel. He didn't quite make it, but he limited his losses better than any of the other podium contenders, crossing the line two seconds behind the Welshman and in fifth place on the stage. In the overall standings, Pinot lies in seventh, 58 seconds behind new maillot jaune Giulio Ciccone and nine seconds down on Thomas.
"I'm satisfied," Pinot said as he waited to make the 7km descent to his team bus in the valley below. "I was a bit worried I wouldn't respond present when everybody was expecting something from me. The team did a great job. We didn't win the stage, but the Tour is still long, and I couldn't lose sight of my objective and get overly excited because it was La Planche."
With Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) losing over a minute to the favourites at La Planche des Belles, Pinot is – saving further miracles from Julian Alaphilippe – the only French rider still in contention to end the home nation’s 34-year drought, which stretches back to Bernard Hinault’s fifth and final triumph in 1985. Pinot declines to mention the yellow jersey in the same way one doesn't look directly into the sun.
"I still have my objective, to be around the podium," Pinot said. "Beyond that, we'll see."
After Pinot had taken his leave and descended that most familiar road, his Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot held court in the centre of the same cluster of microphones and cameras. Leaning against the top tube of a bike, Madiot declared himself satisfied with his team’s performance, and in particular that of young Gaudu.
Madiot acknowledged that the pressure of racing in front of a home crowd was something of a double-edged sword for Pinot. Through his career, after all, Pinot has tended to produce his best south of the Alps in Italy, but the verdant slopes of the Vosges proved to be friendly confines on Thursday afternoon.
"For him, on a personal level, it was an important moment. It was hard because he was playing at home, so there were a lot of requests and attention," Madiot said. "Today's stage was an important corner on this Tour de France for us and for Thibaut. After today, the requests and so on should go back to normal."
It is difficult to extrapolate too much about a race of 3,500 kilometres from a mile or so of bad road atop a mountain in the Vosges, but Pinot's performance at La Planche des Belles – and his assurance on and off the bike since Brussels – felt like an encouraging portent, far removed from the anguish of his setbacks at Ax 3 Domaines in 2013 or Pierre Saint-Martin two years later. "Yes," Madiot said. "But he needs to be good for three weeks."