Thibaut Pinot, uno di noi. "Thibaut Pinot, one of us," read the banner from a group of local tifosi halfway up the climb of Oropa. The feeling is mutual: Pinot has long professed his love of Italy and all things Italian, and he seems to be enjoying his debut in the Giro d'Italia, where, unlike in the remorseless Tour de France, no misstep seems to be completely irretrievable.
When Pinot was distanced by the leading group almost four kilometres from the finish of stage 14, it briefly looked as though his podium aspirations were about to be undone by a most untimely off day. Perhaps in the white heat of July, the FDJ rider would have panicked at such a juncture. On the friendly confines of an Italian mountainside, he simply stuck calmly to the task in hand.
The searing pace laid down first by Movistar and Nairo Quintana, and later by maglia rosa Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), extracted quite a toll from the overall contenders. Though Pinot was among the first to suffer, he never yielded, and he picked his way through the bodies to place 5th on the stage, 35 seconds behind Dumoulin, who tightened his grip on the overall lead by sprinting to stage victory ahead of Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin).
"I managed it well," Pinot said, after ducking behind the podium area to change into a long-sleeved jersey for the descent to his team car. "I understood straightaway that I wasn't on a very good day. It was a bizarre day. With not even three hours of racing, it was quite bizarre. I just limited the damage. It wasn't super, but bon. The important thing is to be consistent, especially in the third week.
After withstanding an initial mini-crisis – he was 25 seconds down within a kilometre of losing contact with the front group – Pinot seemed to improve as the climb progressed, and he even caught and passed Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) in the final kilometre.
In the general classification, Pinot climbs a place to third overall, though his deficit to Dumoulin has now stretched out to 3:25. The Dutchman's startling display at Oropa, allied to the travails of his principal rivals, means that he is now the logical favourite to carry the pink jersey to Milan. Pinot may be a Giro neophyte, but he is well enough versed in the history of the race to know that logic is not always respected once the race reaches its denouement in the high mountains.
"The road is still long and a lot of things can happen yet. But today was a good taster for what lies ahead in the third week," Pinot said. "I'm still confident. Obviously, it was a day where I wasn't going very well but I managed to limit the damage."
Pinot's FDJ team was among the squads to work at the head of the peloton on the flat approach to Biella at the base of the final climb. The man with the tattoo bearing the legend Solo la vittoria è bella – "Only victory is beautiful" – is keen to crown his Giro debut with a stage win, and he had earmarked Oropa as a possibility.
"It could have been a stage for me. When you start out, you never know exactly how you are. In the end, it wasn't a good day for me, but I still managed to limit the damage, so I'm content with that," Pinot said, before taking his leave to soft-pedal down the mountain to his FDJ team car.
Were this the Tour, Pinot's post-stage inquest would have lasted far longer, but here, the forest of microphones is sparser. The effects of a jour sans on the psyche might just be lighter too.
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