Before the Criterium de Dauphine there were question marks concerning just where Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was situated in the scheme of Grand Tour contenders. The past few years had seen him concentrate on what appears to be his favourite of the three national races, the Giro d'Italia, but retiring from last year's edition when still in the running for a podium place behind Chris Froome (Tea left a considerable dent.
Pinot bounced back to take a convincing win at the Tour de Lombardy but just when the French public might have thought that his love affair with all things Italian was a done deal, the FDJ leader produced a remarkable performance on a day marked not just by it's intensity but also the climatic conditions on stage 2 of the Criterium du Dauphine.
Only the strongest were going to survive and by the end of the stage everyone was left in no doubt that Pinot was one of, if not, the strongest rider of the day.
In terms of the standing on the podium at this Dauphine, he certainly placed himself amongst the favourites, but the aggression he displayed in the final 20km will also serve as a reminder to his home supporters of the young rider who exploded onto the world scene in 2014 when he took a spectacular stage win at the Tour and the young rider classification.
Taking the time to warm down properly after what was the opening salvo in the battle for the podium places of the Dauphine, he answered some questions in what appeared to be an entirely satisfied mood.
"It was truly a nice day to race, the kind of day I like. It never slowed all day so everybody was tired at the end, the weather conditions were what I like, too, so I felt good," he told the gathering press and myself at the finish.
"At 15km to go, in the group we were in I thought it could be worse. We collaborated enough but I was hoping for the stage win, in a sprint from a little group, you never know. But it was a good day anyhow. Now, tomorrow, we need to stay calm, alert and see what happens in the second big test, the time trial. In general I ought to be good and today we have seen who was strong and who wasn't. Today was really a day you had to be strong."
Pinot's acceleration on the final climb was the moment of the stage that caught everyone's attention at the finish. He powered up the ascent in the final stages, and only Michael Woods (EF Education First) could follow at first. Froome came back just as the road levelled out, but Pinot's punch will have hurt the legs of everyone else behind. This wasn't a mountain stage, but it was certainly hard enough to give an impression of where everyone lies in terms of form. Not only did Pinot set the exam questions, but he scribbled down answers for everyone else too. Class dismissed.
"I waited for the last 500 metres because I knew after the top it didn't descend straight away and with the sidewind it would be hard. So I waited then went at the right moment. Some guys came back to us but it was a group of favourites so it was good," he calmly added.
"My ride today was reassuring, after yesterday I wasn't feeling great but today I was racing with main TdF contenders and that was important. It was a good test. Now we can hope to keep this level and see what happens at the weekend. Everything will be decided for sure then, especially on the Saturday. We're here to take a few risks so since I felt good I thought it was a good thing to push myself. I'm in form and things are looking good for the future."
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