Although I was busy with the other part of the team on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege recon, I didn't miss a thing from the Tour of the Alps. Thibaut Pinot's condition has improved at the right time. Even beyond his second place overall and his stage win, which was an important morale booster, I liked the fact that he went for the sprint finishes. It's something extra that can count in a Grand Tour since modern racing is often won or lost by a mere few seconds. He had already worked a lot on his time trialling and now his top end speed is good too.
When I got to know him, Thibaut was a pure climber and it looked like nothing else in cycling counted for him. He first came to the attention of our coaches from his home region of Franche-Comté, [FDJ performance manager] Frédéric Grappe and Jacques Décrion [now with Cofidis], and we got in touch after he won the Giro della Valle d'Aosta, aged 19, in 2009. It was a natural move for him to turn pro on our team after that. His elder brother Julien joined us as a coach only later. As a neo-professional, Thibaut was an unpolished jewel. He was carefree like a beginner. Our relationship is based on mutual trust. We share the ups and downs and I never dropped him when he was down.
Now I want to open horizons for him beyond his own viewpoint. He can win a Grand Tour one day. The next French winner of the Tour de France is highly anticipated in our country. It's been more than 30 years, but if Thibaut wins the Giro d'Italia or the Vuelta a España, I'm fine with that too. There's a psychological barrier. He first has to convince himself that he can do it.
He has a love-hate relationship with the Tour de France. Interestingly, he was the one who insisted on riding the Tour as his first Grand Tour in 2012. He ended up winning a stage and finishing 10th overall, the first under-23 rider to make the top 10 since 1947. Two years later, he came third and was best young rider. But he has experienced a lot of disappointments at the Tour as well, particularly last year when he had to pull out due to sickness.
But his participation to the Giro this year was in the air even ahead of the 2016 Tour de France. It's a normal change of race programme. It's the right time to go for it. At the age of 26 or 27, a rider can attempt the Giro-Tour double. At 32 or 33, it's probably too late. Nairo Quintana understands that very well. I'm sure he is going to the Giro with the Tour de France in sight. He knows the Giro can make him stronger in July.
Being the 100th Giro d'Italia makes the race very appealing. The route looks great. I'm myself very excited to head to the Grande Partenza. I haven't been to Sardinia since I won the last stage of the Giro della Sardegna in 1983. For Thibaut, it's the ideal occasion for him to become reconciled with the Grand Tours.
The Giro d'Italia is no longer a national affair. Look at the names of the challengers this year: Adam Yates, Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas, Bauke Mollema, Tejay van Garderen, Rohan Dennis etc. The field has become very international. The worldwide media exposure has increased a lot too, which is important for our sponsors. For the first time ever, the Giro d'Italia will be fully broadcast live on a free-access channel in France thanks to La Chaîne L'Equipe. The impact of the Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo has already been huge this year. If Thibaut does well at the Giro, the audience figures in France will easily exceed one million viewers watching the race every day.
That's another reason why it's the right time for Thibaut to do the Giro, but his participation was decided way before L'Equipe acquired the TV rights. The whole package can make it excellent for the French fans, for FDJ and for him. If he does a good Giro, he's able to do a good Tour too. It's still to be decided whether he'll ride the Tour for a stage win, the polka dot jersey or the GC. He's not someone who is a professional athlete for the fame he can get from it. He loves his peaceful life. However, his sprinting shows that he likes to win more and more. For the Giro, I see him at the same level as Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, with something more than the other favourites. If the door of the Grand Tours winners' room opens, he'll put his foot inside.
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