Pinot abandoned last year’s Tour in tears on stage 19 after suffering a still-mysterious thigh injury. He had dominated in the Pyrenees and had allowed himself to believe he could take the yellow jersey in the Alps and become the first French winner of the Tour in more than 30 years.
After leaving the 2018 Giro d’Italia with pneumonia, similarly in touching distance of the final podium, it was another big knock to his morale, but he has bounced back once more and feels better placed to mount a new challenge for the yellow jersey.
"I’m stronger in the head, that’s for sure. Compared to the same point last year, I feel much more serene and much less pressure," he said during Groupama-FDJ’s pre-Tour press conference on Friday.
"I’m quite detached from it all and I think it’s a good thing not to waste energy managing stresses. I’m pretty calm and above all motivated. What happened to me last year, it can’t get too much worse – at least I hope not – so for sure it toughened me up, and now I very much have a feeling of confidence."
As for France’s long wait for a successor to Bernard Hinault, the last home winner of the Tour back in 1985, Pinot, who finished third at the 2014 Tour before struggling in the following two editions, now shrugs off that external pressure.
"Since 2014, they repeat that it's now or never for the French. Now I take it with a smile," he said. |The most negative pressure was the pressure I put on myself, but I've come to manage that much better than previous years. It's experience - I'm 30 now - that has made me more serene."
On a physical level, Pinot sees no cause for concern and no reason to believe he can’t recapture the form that saw him shine last year.
He hasn’t finished outside the top 10 in the five stage races he’s done this year, and his return to racing after the season’s interruption has seen him finish fourth at the Route d’Occitanie and second at the Critérium du Dauphiné, albeit the latter after the withdrawals of the Tour’s top two favourites: Egan Bernal and Primož Roglič.
"The objective is, like last year, to do as well as possible. That means being on the podium, and then it’s a case of being on as high a step as possible," he said.
"My preparation has been good. I was up there in Occitanie and up there at the Dauphiné, so I should be here at 100 per cent. If I have no physical problems, I should be able to maintain my level for three weeks, and I hope that takes my as high as possible."
FDJ vs Ineos and Jumbo-Visma
Pinot lines up as the sole leader of a Groupama-FDJ team that does not include in-form sprinter Arnaud Démare, but instead a support cast including David Gaudu, Sebastian Reichenbach, and Rudy Molard for the mountains, plus Stefan Küng for the flatter terrain and possible windy conditions.
"There are two big armadas, with Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, and we’re just behind. Whether it’s in the mountains or on the flat, we have nothing to fear from them.
"We’ll play to our strengths but we won’t have to impose ourselves on the race like Ineos or Jumbo. From tomorrow, they’ll already have the responsibility of managing gaps and chasing breakaways.
"Riding on the front the whole time to protect your leaders, that’s energy they’re spending. For us, we have to think tactically. The important thing will be to be up there in the third week, then there will be the means to try things, to be attacking."
As such, despite a foray into the hills as early as stage 2, followed by summit finishes on stages 4 and 6, Pinot doesn’t predict a very open or active first week.
“For sure I fear the race unfolding like at the Dauphiné, which was quite controlled up until Roglič abandoned. Over three weeks, a lot can happen, and you can’t compare it to a week-long race, but I think the first week of the Tour will be quite controlled."
Pinot commented that it’s "a dream" of his to one day wear the yellow jersey, and refused to see the prospect of taking it early in the race – and therefore having to use his team to defend it – as a 'poisoned chalice'.
However, it’s clear he’s thinking ahead to the final week and not worrying that COVID-19 complications could halt the race and see a champion declared from the mid-race standings.
"I hope the sporting result in Paris will be based on the race, without teams having to leave the Tour," he said. "We’re confident of getting to Paris and that everyone will be there with us. It’s a question I think about very rarely, even if I’m aware we have a sword of Damocles hanging over us."
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