As he waited for the start of stage 2 of the Tour de Pologne, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) grinned broadly when he offered a five-second analysis of his current condition: "I feel good," he told Cyclingnews. "Everything's OK. Ça va."
The French climber's visible satisfaction about what is such a normal situation is understandable, given his recent past.
"The last time we saw Pinot on a bike, it was awful to see," commented L'Equipe newspaper a few days ago. Prior to the Tour de Pologne, Pinot had been last seen by most fans when close to abandoning the Giro d'Italia on the Col Saint-Panteleon during stage 20.
He eventually quit the race after finishing the stage more than 45 minutes down and enduring what he called "one of my worst days ever on the bike, above all in terms of morale", falling victim to a mixture of dehydration, exhaustion, fever and – it was subsequently discovered – pneumonia.
Fast forward two months and after skipping the Tour de France to concentrate on making a full recovery, Pinot has made his debut in the Tour de Pologne as part of his build-up for the second half of the season. After what he describes as a "very strange mid-season" and such a difficult exit from the Giro d'Italia, the Groupama-FDJ rider is simply glad to be racing.
"It's been odd," he told Cyclingnews before stage 2, "because normally we riders don't have such a long time away from the peloton mid-season. I like to race and I haven't been able to, so I don't know what my real form is. I've not got enough reference points. But I feel good."
Pinot's unexpected mid-season break was lengthened after an unusual incident, when he was bitten by a tick carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease. Such bites require antibiotics to prevent the potential infection from actually developing into a full-blown, and potentially very serious, illness.
"In rural France, we've got a lot of these ticks, and they've increased in number in the last few years as temperatures have risen. In these circumstances it's very important to deal with the situation quickly," he said. "So that slowed my recovery down a little as well. It meant that I had to do lower-intensity training for a while. But I came back OK and here I am."
In Poland, Pinot has resorted to the classic approach of 'day-by-day', rather than setting himself major objectives too soon in his build-up. He only sits down to read the route book for the next stage the evening before.
"I'm doing the best I can. I'll try to stay with the favourites, and one day in the mountains in the second half of the race, it'll be clear if I can play my cards against the best or not. I'll certainly try to get into a break on one stage."
Above all, Pinot says, he is looking forward to the Vuelta a España, which he added to his 2018 race programme after abandoning the Giro d'Italia. "It'll be a little bit like here – taking it 'day-by-day' and seeing if I can go for the GC or stage wins.
"I've got good and bad memories of the Vuelta," said Pinot. "In 2013, I got seventh overall, but then in 2014, I had to abandon because I got heatstroke."
"So I'll be taking things there day-by-day, and also racing with one eye on building my form for the world championships, and for the Italian end-of-season Classics like Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia, which I like a lot."
So far in Poland, the racing has gone well, with Pinot active on the technical finishing circuit on Katowice on stage 2, and keeping up with the favourites for a second straight day. But the real tests, he knows, will come in the mountains of southern Poland from Tuesday onwards – his favourite sort of terrain.
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