Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) continued his success at this year's Vuelta a España as the French climber racked up his second stage victory and his country's fifth Friday during the stage 19 summit finish.
Already the winner on the Vuelta's toughest summit finish at the Lagos de Covadonga, less than a week later on the Coll de la Rabassa Pinot broke away with LottoNL-Jumbo duo Steven Kruijswijk and George Bennett, shortly after Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) had briefly gone clear.
But when race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) subsequently got across and opened up the throttle, Pinot was the only rider who looked comfortable handling the Briton's pace, to the point when he could then put forth a late attack to win stage 19.
With two superb mountain-top victories in the Vuelta, Pinot has also, unintentionally, provided French national trainer Cyrille Guimard with the kind of problem that other nations would envy: multiple riders could be considered leader of the French team in the fast-approaching UCI Road World Championships.
Having won the recent Tour of Britain, and now leading in the Tour of Slovakia, Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) is clearly in top form this autumn. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) is also in the running for protected-rider status. But in the Vuelta, Pinot is firing on all cylinders, too.
"This is the icing on the cake. I didn't think that I would do it. I wasn't feeling good on Wednesday [the Balcon de Bizkaia summit finish], but I found my legs again," Pinot said afterwards.
"I was really just racing for pleasure, and I liked the profile of this first Andorra stage better than the second [on Saturday]. It's better for my characteristics. Then I was able to build my success off Simon Yates' move.
"I attacked 12 kilometres from the line and that paid off well. Simon Yates knew the terrain really well, he lives here after all and he knew what he was doing, maybe he saw that Valverde wasn't on a great day. From then on it was le bon moment."
After one victory apiece in Asturias and Andorra, Pinot said he did not rule out trying for a hat-trick of mountain stage wins on Saturday. He argued that the GC battle, which never was an objective, would continue into Saturday and that it might be difficult for a breakaway to go. He asked rhetorically, "If my legs tell me I can do something, why not try?"
Regardless of what happens, Pinot's latest success has helped make this France's best Vuelta a España since 1995, when Laurent Jalabert dominated the race to the point of taking the overall, points and the King of the Mountains titles in one fell swoop. He was only the third rider in history ever to achieve such a feat in a single Grand Tour.
It seems clear that unlike in 1995, France will not significantly impact the overall in this year's Vuelta, although Pinot's seventh place on GC, equalling his best in Spain's Grand Tour back in 2013, is hardly to be sniffed at. In any case, their current tally of five stage wins - two for Pinot, one apiece for Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Alexandre Geniez (AG2R-La Mondiale), Tony Gallopin (AG2R-La Mondiale) - now equals the total taken by The Panda, as Jalabert was nicknamed, 23 years ago.
Regardless of Saturday's stage 20 outcome, collectively the French teams can also be satisfied with their respective Vueltas. Groupama-FDJ with two stage wins so far and a four-day spell in the lead for Rudy Molard, have also had their best-ever Spanish Grand Tour. Cofidis, apart from Bouhanni's victory, have also enjoyed a lengthy lead in the King of the Mountains classification with Spain's Luis Maté, aka the Lynx of Marbella. AG2R, with Gallopin visibly back at his best and Geniez winning in Galicia, have more than fulfilled their mission statement of going for stage wins, too.
As for the French nation, looking ahead to the world championships on a day when his participation in his country's line-up was already confirmed even before he won, Pinot was asked if he would now be demanding anything from Guimard - the implication being, if he felt his race results in Spain meant he now warranted leadership status. Pinot dodged the question, saying, "You’ll have to ask him [Guimard], riders like Alaphilippe will also count."
"In any case, taking two stages is a big step forward here. I was aiming for one but two is something very special for me. And with the Worlds selection too, it’s been a great day for me all round," he said.
For Pinot, then, defining his role at the Worlds can wait for a little. But come what may in Austria this September, Pinot's double triumph in Spain has already made his autumn a success.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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