It wasn't quite a jour sans but it was by no means a jour avec, either. After sparkling on the Port de Balès on Tuesday, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) was noticeably flatter on the road to Pla d'Adet on stage 17 of the Tour de France.
The morning's front page of L'Équipe featured an action shot of Pinot under the banner headline "Follow his blue panache," but now dressed in the white jersey of best young rider, the Frenchman was off colour on the Tour's second of three days in the Pyrenees.
Pinot retains third place in the general classification but only by eight scant seconds ahead of Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who once again summoned up the strength to remain in contact with maillot jaune Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) when he accelerated five kilometres from the summit.
"There are mixed feelings. I'm still in third place but today I was a lot less good than yesterday. I had to limit the damage, but I conceded some time," Pinot said afterwards. "It was a difficult day and I could feel from the start that I wasn't on a great day. But on the days when you're less good, the important thing is to limit the damage and I managed that."
Pinot appeared under a degree of duress from the beginning of the final climb. His pedalling seemed more leaden than on previous summit finishes and he was already drifting towards the rear of the yellow jersey group under the forcing of Péraud's teammate Romain Bardet.
Before the stage, Pinot had spoken hopefully of tagging on more seconds to his lead over the time triallists Péraud and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) in the battle for podium places. Instead, the haul to Pla d'Adet turned into an exercise in loss limitation for Pinot. He crossed the line alongside Bardet in 11th place, 54 seconds down on Péraud and Nibali.
"Jean-Christophe had a good day today and I had a bad one, but it was the opposite yesterday, so I hope I can turn things around tomorrow," he said.
Pinot also conceded some ground to second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) after the Spaniard rallied to overhaul him in the flatter final kilometres. "He had quite a few teammates with him, and the last few kilometres weren't as tough so he benefited from having them with him. That comes with experience," Pinot said.
After moving into the white jersey at Bagnères-de-Luchon on Tuesday, Pinot's polite but short answers seemed aimed at deflecting pressure and downplaying expectations following his exploit over the Port de Balès. Atop Pla d'Adet, Pinot's responses were a little more effusive, and he did not shy away from accepting his day for what it was.
"It's the legs that decide and mine weren't good," he said. "I'm not looking for excuses: I had a less good day today."
The beauty of the Tour, of course, is that one never steps into the same river twice. In profile and length, Thursday's stage to Hautacam seems very similar, but Pinot stressed that the outcome could be very different.
"We're almost level on time now but we still have Hautacam tomorrow where there could be gaps again. It's a big climb, where you need to have good legs and I'm confident. It's going to be a nice battle. Valverde struggled a bit today too, so nothing is decided for the podium, and that's great for the suspense."
Indeed, Pinot seemed more confident of unseating Valverde from second place than putting time into Péraud ahead of Saturday's 54km time trial, noting that the Spaniard would not be able to rely on the strength of his team to the same degree at Hautacam.
"The final kilometres on the last climb today were a lot easier than what we'll face tomorrow, and having teammates around won't be as much of a help," he said.
"There are two climbs, the Tourmalet and Hautacam, which are the two toughest climbs in the Pyrenees, and it's another short stage so it will be à bloc all day, just like today. It's still all to do tomorrow."
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