Thibaut Pinot leads the Groupama-FDJ team of manager Marc Madiot for the 100th edition of the Tour de France. After a few difficult years, Pinot, 29, is hoping to regain the form that earned him stage wins and a podium in 2014. The team decided in December to focus solely on Pinot by leaving their sprinter Arnaud Démare at home. In the absence of Christopher Froome and Tom Dumoulin, it's 'l'année ou jamais' (now or never) for Pinot, as French media stated during the team's press conference in Brussels Expo on Wednesday evening.
Pinot was asked if he wasn't fed up with the question. "No, I'm not bored about the question but I don't understand it, really. I'm 29 years old so I've still got quite a few years ahead of me. On the other hand, this is a year in which I'm hitting peak form, I'm keen to do well. I'm ambitious. I'm calm because I've done everything I can to be ready. It's true that Froome and Dumoulin aren't here but there's quite a lot of other favourites and outsiders. There are a lot of climbers in this Tour who are all at the same high level."
The marriage between Pinot and the Tour de France hasn't always been successful. After storming onto the scene in 2012 with a Jura mountains stage win in Porrentruy, Switzerland, finishing ahead of a star-studded chase group while Madiot leaned out of the car screaming his throat sore. Pinot went on to become France's biggest hope for the overall victory when he finished on the podium in 2014 behind Vincenzo Nibali and veteran Jean-Christophe Péraud.
In 2015, a victory in the penultimate stage to Alpe d'Huez from a breakaway made up for a disappointing GC. Over the subsequent years, Pinot was forced to abandon and last year he even skipped the Tour. He bounced back by showing splendid form at the end of the season when he won the monument Il Lombardia. This year, Pinot won the Tour de l'Ain and the Tour du Haut Var. He finished fifth in both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
"I had mixed emotions about the Tour de France. Last year I wasn't in the Tour after abandoning the Giro. Watching the race at home wasn't fun at all. It was difficult on the mental front. This is the biggest race in the world. This is the race everybody talks about. I've had to abandon two times. I want to show the real Pinot again because the images of the last few years of me in the Tour: that's not me. Now I'm eager to race here again. I want to go through the same emotions again like when I did the podium and the stage wins."
Pinot denied that there were any mental problems that kept him from going well in the last few years. "It's nothing mental. In the past, we probably were too eager. We tried to be good in June but I ended up being somewhat tired and lacking freshness at the Tour. This year, we intentionally decided to take it relatively easy during the spring season to make sure I'm fresh for the Tour. If you're not fresh at the start of the Tour, then it gets complicated.
"Now, I'm arriving here in the best form I've had in many years. I'm ready. We like to take the race in our hands but that's not always possible. Team Ineos is enormous. They have the keys to control the race. To me, there are three top favourites: [Geraint] Thomas, [Egan] Bernal and [Jakob] Fuglsang. Thomas won last year. Bernal was the most impressive rider this year. Someone like Fuglsang can put Ineos into trouble and if the top riders are controlling each other, then it's up to me to profit from that.
"By winning Lombardia I moved into a special category of riders because it's rare to win a Monument, certainly as a climber. Then again, I'm not considered among many as one of the top favourites and to be honest, that's OK for me. I'll have to be very, very patient until the Pyrenees I think. I can't waste my energy. I have to bide my time and then try to seize an opportunity. Before that, we all have to stay out of crashes and incident and for me, sickness. And the team time trial will be the first major test."
Even though the whole Groupama-FDJ team is expected to ride in support of Pinot, the French star claims that his first goal isn't the general classification. "First, it's about a stage win, then comes the general classification. The sooner I can get a stage win, the better. Thursday would be great," Pinot said with a smile. He'll be the 'local d'étappe' as he lives in the Vosges mountains, in Melisey that day.
"The stage with the finish at La Planche des Belles Filles is very interesting, of course. It's a medium-mountain stage and those are the most beautiful but also the hardest to control. The stage comes after five stages. The general classification will already be taking shape as the team time trial is already behind us then. By Thursday evening, we'll know much more about my chances for the GC. I want to finish as high up in the GC as possible but if there are three riders ahead of me that's OK if they are stronger than me. I don't want to have any regrets in Paris. The mountain's classification? That's something that might become interesting but today it's not an objective."
In order to get a good placing in the GC by Thursday, a good result in the team time trial on Sunday in Brussels will be very important. In the past, the FDJ team hasn't been a major factor in the discipline but Pinot feels that the team improved a lot. "We aim to get a good result in the team time-trial. It's true that we're not going to win it but I hope to finish between fifth and eighth place. That's the goal. We've got a really good team for the time trial. Our team is homogeneous. We have Stefan Küng in the team. He's the engine. We already showed that we are capable of a good performance. It's an important test for me. We did well in Tirreno (8th) and we kept working on it."
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