Could 2020 finally be Thibaut Pinot's year? Will the home nation's Tour de France hoodoo finally come to an end?
While the answer to those questions won't be known for just over three weeks, the race will begin in Nice this weekend with Thibaut Pinot among the principal favourites for the yellow jersey, and with plenty of indications that the Groupama-FDJ leader is ready to live up to that billing.
Most significantly, Pinot's form appears to be rising and set to peak during the second half of the Tour. He was fourth and not too concerned at being in Team Ineos' shadow on his return to racing at the Route d'Occitanie at the start of this month. He stepped up a level at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he finished second overall to EF Pro Cycling's Dani Martínez.
"Thibaut is on the right track for the Tour. We still have a few weeks ahead of us, but what we've seen here gives us good reason to be optimistic," Groupama-FDJ sports director Philippe Mauduit told Cyclingnews at that race.
Pinot may have come up a little short and was left frustrated when challenged by Martínez on the Dauphiné's helter-skelter final stage, but he was more than satisfied with his performance.
"He looks one of the strongest, and he's still got some improving to do, so at the moment he's happy, he's got good mojo, everything is coming together for the start of the Tour," confirmed teammate Antoine Duchesne.
That sense of everything coming together has also been reflected in Groupama's team selection for the Tour.
The engine room of William Bonnet, Mathieu Ladagnous and newly crowned European time trial champion Stefan Küng is packed with power and experience. For the climbs, Dauphiné starters Sébastien Reichenbach and Valentin Madouas will be reinforced by Rudy Molard and David Gaudu, who missed the Dauphiné due to digestive problems, but confirmed his return to fitness by finishing the Tour du Limousin.
"The thing is that the Dauphiné is such a hard race that when you have a little problem, it's sometimes better to skip a race like this, to refresh yourself," Mauduit said of key mountain lieutenant Gaudu.
"We were just playing it safe in order to make sure he'll be in top condition at the Tour."
The route and timing of the 2020 Tour also play in Pinot's favour.
The Frenchman was, according to 2019 Tour winner Egan Bernal, the strongest rider in the mountains at last year's race. Winner at the summit of the Col du Tourmalet after Gaudu had scattered the contenders with his pace-making on the lower slopes of the legendary pass, Pinot was also the best of the yellow jersey contenders at Prat d'Albis the following day.
If he can avoid the kind of injury that then forced him into a tearful abandon in the Alps, he should thrive on this edition's climb-heavy course. What's more, the critical time trial on the penultimate day to La Planche des Belles Filles takes place on his home roads, where he won't lack for support or motivation.
Just as importantly, the Covid-enforced postponement from the height of summer to more temperate September will also suit the Frenchman, who doesn't relish racing in extreme heat.
"It won't be 42 degrees in September, and it would be worrying if it is," he said.
There is, however, an inevitable 'but' when it comes to Pinot and three-week races.
Since winning a stage on his Tour debut in 2012 and finishing a very distant third to Vincenzo Nibali in 2014, when he was also best young rider, the Frenchman has not managed to secure another podium finish at a Grand Tour.
His confidence has been brittle on occasions, his constitution even more so. In 2018, he looked certain to finish in the top three at the Giro d'Italia until forced to abandon after the penultimate stage due to the effects of pneumonia.
There have also been regular setbacks at the Tour, where his record is three DNFs in his last three appearances. He admitted that he fell out of love with the race, such was the pressure he felt he was under, but came back to it last year with renewed passion. Yet again, though, he succumbed, this time to an unusual thigh-muscle injury in 2019 when the yellow jersey finally appeared to be within touching distance.
Speaking to L'Equipe, one of the French team's former doctors, Gérard Guillaume, described Pinot as an "enigma", and added, "For me, his problem is completely psychological, just like his repeated issue with infections!"
Pinot dismisses this, highlighting his steady progression as a racer and as a leader, as well as the ever-increasing competitiveness of his team, to which he has committed himself to the end of the 2023 season. Now 30, he's in his physical prime. France expects, but he does, too.
He's shown that he's not only at the level of the very best, but that he can beat them, and in real style.
With the likes of Gaudu, Küng and "Breton 4x4" Madouas to support him, a favourable Tour route and the elements also likely to be on his side, there's a sense that the stars are aligning for the Frenchman.
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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