Pinot approaches Tour de France in a different frame of mind

Thursday morning's edition of L'Équipe carried a roundtable interview with Bernard Hinault, Lucien Aimar and Bernard Thévenet, the only living French Tour de France winners, beneath the headline: "You never want to be the last Frenchman on the roll of honour."

Since making his Tour debut in 2012, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) has regularly carried the weight of the home expectation to bridge the now 32-year gap to Hinault's final triumph on the Champs-Élysées, but he arrives at this year's race with a nation's lonely eyes turned in other directions.

After building his season around a tilt at the Giro d'Italia, where he remained in contention until the final time trial and placed a fine fourth overall, Pinot reaches July in a novel situation: his prime objective for the year has already been largely accomplished.

"It's a new approach to the Tour after a successful Giro, which was my big target this season," Pinot said in Düsseldorf on Wednesday evening. "I'm more relaxed coming into the Tour this year, and it's good to be in this situation."

Having placed third overall in 2014, Pinot began each of the past two Tours with ambitions of the podium and perhaps even overall victory, but fell short on each occasion, placing 9th in 2015 and being forced out by illness a year ago. This time around, Pinot maintains that a high overall finish will not be a goal at all, given the toll extracted by his efforts at the Giro.

"I don't think I'm capable of targeting the top five. I'm less fresh than I was at the Giro, I can still feel it in my legs," Pinot said. "We'll go day by day and look at things after La Planche des Belles Filles [on stage 5]. Flogging myself to finish 9th doesn't really interest me so I'd fight for other things, like stage wins, in that situation."

Pinot's downscaled ambitions stand in contrast to the lofty goal of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who arrives on this Tour targeting final victory after placing second overall at the Giro barely five weeks ago. All season long, in fact, Quintana has made no secret of his desire to tackle the Giro-Tour double.

"He feels capable of it, but I don't," Pinot said. "Then again, he won the Vuelta last year after doing the Tour. He has that experience already, and I don't. Personally, I don't feel capable of fighting for the podium in two successive Grand Tours."

Managing the five-week gap between the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour is one of the great difficulties of attempting the double, and Pinot was, by his own admission, a long way short of his best when he lost his French national time trial title last week. Having taken a break in the aftermath of the corsa rosa, he acknowledged that returning to competitive action might prove a shock to the system.

"It all depends on the rider, but for me, another week between the Giro and Tour wouldn't have done any harm," Pinot said. "Hopefully I'll start to feel better as the days go by. After eight days, I'd hope to be at my best."

Asked if he was more concerned at being hampered by a lack of sharpness early in the Tour or a lack of freshness in the final week, Pinot plumped decisively for the latter. On stage 5, for the third time in his career, the Tour visits La Planche des Belles Filles, the summit finish closest to his home of Melisey. Pinot placed second there in 2014, but fears the climb comes a few days too soon for him to make an impact this time around.

"I'm more concerned about the start of the Tour. Getting back on the road again is going to be tough. I was struggling at the French time trial championships, so it's a pity La Planche des Belles Filles is coming after only five days," Pinot said. "I'll take the first week as a big block of training and then try to be good in weeks one and two."

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