Thibaut Pinot's long path back to the Tour de France moves another step closer with this week's Volta a Catalunya, with the Groupama-FDJ rider taking a break immediately after the stage race prior to his build-up to July.
The Tour de France has brought uneven results for Pinot, even if a stage was the scene of his first major international victory, with Marc Madiot memorably cheering himself hoarse in the FDJ team car as he urged Pinot on towards victory at the Porrentruy finish in Switzerland.
A third place overall – his first (and only to date) podium in a Grand Tour – in 2014 and a win at Alpe d'Huez in 2015 were other high points.
But these have been interspersed with difficult years and abandons in 2013, 2016 and 2017. In 2018, after his dramatic last-minute abandon at the Giro d'Italia, Pinot didn't even take part.
As for 2019, Pinot told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 2 of the Volta a Catalunya, a top result or even a podium finish could be within his grasp at the Tour this year.
"I'm looking for the best result possible and a top three is what I'd like to get. But that'll depend on the race, and on how I feel. But, above all, I want to get to Paris with no regrets."
Pinot said that what has enabled him to face a return to the Tour de France has been, above all, the Vuelta a España last year, where he took two mountain-top stage wins – including one at the most emblematic finish of the race, at the Lagos de Covadonga – and finished seventh overall.
"It's true that, after the Giro d'Italia, I was fed up with three-week stage races in general, and I was worried that I couldn't really complete at Grand Tours in the way I wanted to. But that Vuelta, particularly with the wins I got, was a real high point for me, and that was something that has allowed me to reset my attitude towards the Tour."
The route, too, is much more favourable towards the climbers than in other years, which is an added motivation for Pinot.
"There's not so much time trialling – just 25 kilometres or so – which is a huge reduction compared to 2012, for example, when we had more than 100 kilometres. So that's good for me – but what's even better is that we've got lots of summit finishes and high-altitude stages. That's great."
As for the more immediate challenges, at the Volta a Catalunya, where, after a fraught stage 2 finale, Pinot was lying 25th overall in the same time as most of the favourites, the 28-year-old argued that he could be up with the other big-name contenders when the race moves into the mountains. On previous editions, he has taken fifth in both of this year's summit finishes, as well as placing 10th overall in Barcelona last year.
"The Volta has always been a race that has suited me well, so we'll see how we get on, and do the best possible. There are two good summit finishes – on Wednesday and Thursday – and those will be my first big mountain tests of the season, so it's a crucial test for me, and the last before I take some rest.
"Wednesday is the harder of the two, as the finish goes well above 2,000 metres [2,150 metres], so that's going to be a big challenge with the altitude as well," Pinot added. "On top of that, with the level of the field here, it's going to be a real challenge."
His first part of the season, in any case, has gone well, he says. Victory at the Tour du Haut Var, with a win on one of France's toughest single climbs – Mont Faron – was very encouraging, but there have been other good results since he began racing back at the Tour de La Provence in February.
"I've been up there in every race I've done, which is the key thing," said Pinot. "It's very been very good. Fifth at Tirreno, which wasn't a race that was very suited to me, was very significant. Catalunya will be a good place to stop because I'm in good shape and, above all, I can be pleased with what I've achieved up to now."
After taking a break following Catalunya, Pinot's calendar for the lead-up to the Tour de France will feature the Tour de l'Ain – a race he won back in 2017 – followed by the Critérium du Dauphiné. And, after that, he'll head to Brussels for the Grand Départ on July 7, and a return to the biggest challenge of them all.