The Tour de France has globalised immensely since Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor divided loyalties in the 1960s but at its heart, La Grande Boucle has remained a resolutely French affair.
It's little wonder, then, that the presence of not one but two young French climbers in the battle for the final podium has provoked such excitement among the home media, and it’s no surprise either, that many are hoping that their duel this July might develop into a longer-term rivalry.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) lies fourth overall as the Tour enters its final week, just 16 seconds behind another Frenchman born in 1990, Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), but when he met the press at Château de Pennautier, outside Carcassonne, on Monday morning, he was keen to downplay their tête-à-tête.
"We're the same age, we know each other well. On the bike Romain is a rival but off it he's still a friend," Pinot said, although Bardet's name was conspicuous by its absence when he listed his most difficult rivals for a place on the podium in Paris.
"For me, [Alejandro] Valverde, [Tejay] van Garderen and [Jean-Christophe] Peraud are the most dangerous," Pinot said.
And Bardet? "He has a 16-second advantage on me now but there's a 54km time trial to come and I hope I will be better than him there," Pinot said. "The others I've named are stronger in the time trial than me."
Although the French pair broke even at Risoul on Saturday, Pinot holds the upper hand on the Tour's mountaintop finishes to date, out-climbing Bardet at La Planche des Belles Filles and again at Chamrousse. On the descent of the Izoard on stage 14, however, Ag2r-La Mondiale looked to take advantage of Pinot's Achilles heel by forcing the pace en masse and briefly distancing him.
"I read that their aim on the Izoard was to drop me. They wanted to drop me but not the others, but they really needed to drop Valverde and van Garderen because at the moment, they're the most likely to finish on the podium," Pinot said. "They're the riders I most want to distance in the Pyrenees."
The man from Mélisey was a 10th-place finisher at his sparkling Tour debut in 2012 and arrived at this year's race with the intention of betting that performance. That target was revised upwards to a place in the top five last week, and now, just six days from Paris, Pinot admitted that he is daring to dream of the podium. Beating Bardet to the white jersey, he maintained, is simply an afterthought.
"My real objective is the podium but I'd be broadly satisfied with a place in the top five," Pinot said. "After that, if Bardet is second or third and takes the white jersey, I'd be very happy for him. For me, the podium is a bigger objective than the white jersey."
Into the Pyrenees
One of the greatest obstacles for a French contender at the Tour – on a par, perhaps, with scaling the peaks of the Alps and Pyrenees – is coping with the mountain of expectation heaped upon him by a public without a home winner since 1985 and without a podium finisher since 1997.
Pinot opted not to ride with his teammates on the road on Monday, opting instead for a session on the turbo trainer, and he seemed utterly unfettered by pressure as he breezed into the function room in the Château de Pennautier shortly afterwards. Dressed in compression socks and a pair of Paris Saint-Germain shorts, he laughed off a comparison with their mercurial striker Zlatan Ibahimovic.
Tuesday's stage to Bagnères-de-Luchon threatens to be rather more daunting for Pinot, however, as it features the 20-kilometre descent of the Port de Balès in the finale. Twelve months ago, the Frenchman's Tour fell apart on another Pyrenean descent – the Col de Pailhères – and his admitted fear of high-speed descending will surely be put to the test once more by his rivals.
"It doesn't worry me, because the climb of the Port de Balès will do damage before hand, so I hope to be in front at the top and able to take the descent without taking any risks," he said.
Pinot admitted that the long, steady passes of Alps were better-suited to his characteristics than the shorter, sharper climbs of the Pyrenees, but having performed strongly in the Vosges, he was bullish about his prospects in the third and final mountain range of the Tour.
"I'm not afraid. The stage to Pla d'Adet will be a bit like the day to La Planche des Belles Filles, the same kind of quite short and quite steep climbs. But I rode well at La Planche des Belles Filles so there's no stage to come that frightens me. It's more the prospect of serious heat that I'm worried about."
To date, Pinot's attacks on this Tour have been carefully weighted. His lone acceleration from distance – 12 kilometres from the summit of Chamrousse – came on the climb that suited him best, and he suggested that in the Pyrenees, he will follow a similar template.
"Attacking on the Tourmalet [the penultimate climb of stage 18] would be a bit suicidal. If you go from distance you'd have to have other guys from GC with you. We'll see how it goes but I don't want to take big risks," Pinot said. "The best thing would be to have three big days, and take a bit of time – 15 or 30 seconds – on each one, like I did in the Vosges and Alps."
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