As a chilly winter sun set on the boulevards of Aix-en-Provence, Thibaut Pinot took to the stage of the Aix 'Pasino' theatre, warming the French hearts that had been so thoroughly cracked by his dramatic abandon in last year's Tour de France. The 29-year-old pins on a number for the first time since last July and kicks off his 2020 season at the four day Tour de la Provence this week, which includes a stage finish to the Chalet Reynard ski station on Mont Ventoux on Saturday.
Despite the presence of some other big names, Pinot was the rider that the crowd in Aix — not a huge crowd, but then this was a Wednesday evening in February — had come to see. While Julian Alaphillippe proved a durable overall leader last July, it was Pinot who, after years of hesitancy, finally looked to be the man to end French cycling's long wait for a maillot jaune in Paris.
Now, as both Pinot and his father figure Marc Madiot, Groupama-FDJ manager, know, he has to step up again and build on last year's performance. That means only the podium in Paris — or the maillot jaune itself — will be enough.
Climbing into the Ventoux's chilly air to a finish at 1,429 metres will be a good test of where, after 20 days training at altitude in Tenerife, Pinot currently stands, and also of what the 2020 season holds.
"I can't wait to get started," Pinot, after his almost seven-month exile from racing, said. "I'm keen to know where I am. I've turned the page from the 2019 Tour. It's time to move on and focus on the new season. I'm not feeling pressure - it's more excitement.
"I'm starting from zero. I'm not thinking of results this week but more of having the best possible feelings on the bike. I'm not totally sure of my form, but it's maybe the same as last year at this time. It's a great parcours, though, and everything is set up for a good week."
Pinot's main target of the spring is Paris-Nice (March 8-15). "I'm riding several races in France this year, and it's partly to rekindle the feelings I had during last year's Tour. I race the Tour du Haut Var next week and it's good to be among top riders at these early races — we're lucky to have them in France."
However, he dismissed suggestions that Saturday's partial ascent of the Ventoux to Chalet Reynard - the ski station finish below the summit of Mont Ventoux - would suit him more than others.
"It's not really the Ventoux, though," he said. "It's only to Chalet Reynard... and everybody is used to these kind of efforts by February. A 40-minute climb in February doesn't bother us. I just want to perform well there.
"It's not a climb I particularly like," Pinot admitted. "I've abandoned the Tour twice, the day after a Ventoux stage. It's not a place where I have good memories, so I hope I'm feeling good on Saturday."
The build-up to this year's Grand Départ in Nice on June 27 for Groupama-FDJ starts here. With both climbing lieutenants Rudy Molard and David Gaudu alongside him this week, Pinot will be keen to put last summer's bitter tears behind him, as will Madiot.
"When I packed my suitcase to come here, my wife was happy," Madiot joked, referring to his star rider's long hiatus.
Pinot meanwhile says that he will only start thinking about the Tour in May, but for the gaggle of starstruck kids waiting for him as he strolled back to his hotel in Aix last night, it was clear that it's only really July that matters.