The Pyrenees should have been the making of Thibaut Pinot, France's great climbing hope, who finished 10th on his Tour de France debut last year. Instead, two days of torment have left have left the FDJ.fr leader more than half an hour down on yellow jersey Chris Froome and questioning whether he even has a place at the race.
Pinot's problems stem from his tentativeness on descents. "Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I'm afraid of speed. It's a phobia," he confessed. It first became apparent on the descent of the Pailhères during Saturday's first stage in the Pyrenees, when Pinot lost contact with the yellow jersey group and ended up losing six minutes. On Sunday, he lost another 25 minutes when he came in with the gruppetto and was in tears soon after the finish.
Speaking candidly to L'Equipe afterwards, he said: "When I saw that I was not able to stay on the wheel of a rider like Mark Cavendish on the descent off a mountain pass, I asked myself: ‘What am I doing on the Tour?' I received the clear response that I have nothing to do here."
Pinot added: "This is a very sad situation for me, I'm the person who is most disappointed about it… I don't know if I will be able to get over this trauma. During yesterday's stage my only objective was to survive. I don't know if I will recover, but that's life and that's cycling."
Pinot's difficulties go back to a crash he suffered when he was younger, which has resulted in him being extremely tentative on descents. Earlier this year, his FDJ teammate Laurent Mangel said on French TV: "He doesn't know how to take corners and that makes him go slower and take more risks."
FDJ team boss Marc Madiot says there is nothing physically wrong, while his brother and personal coach Julien has said that Pinot was in the form of his life going into the Tour. Yet, on those Pyrenean stages Pinot's nerves went so badly that the team went into the rest day concerned that he might abandon the race. That worry has passed, and Pinot will now look to the Alps and hope that he can recoup something from the Tour there.
Meanwhile, his teammates are rallying around him. Arnold Jeannesson and Arthur Vichot have said that the rest of the team have to step up and relieve some of the tremendous pressure that Pinot has been under since his outstanding Tour debut last year.
Jérémy Roy commented to L'Alsace.fr: "We are all sad for him, we have to reassure him. The incredible heat, fatigue and nervousness of the first week have affected everyone. Disappointment is part of sport, that's how it is. You have to learn how to deal with it. He didn't want to disappoint everyone, but he has to digest what has happened. A lot is expected of Thibaut, who will be determined to show his value in the third week. We're expecting a big surprise."
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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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