Thibaut Pinot has revealed he has still not fully recovered from the back injury that hampered his Tour de France, and is therefore approaching the Vuelta a España without the ambition of going for the overall title.
Speaking to the press on the eve of the opening stage, the Frenchman said he wanted to rediscover the "enjoyment" of racing again, and suggested his time in Spain would revolve around hunting for stage wins and supporting Groupama-FDJ teammate David Gaudu.
Pinot suffered his back injury on the home straight of the opening stage of the Tour, when he crashed and another rider rode into his back. By the Pyrenees at the end of the first week, it was clear he was out of yellow jersey contention, although he struggled on to Paris.
The 30-year-old has not raced since, but, while he initially appeared reluctant to go to the Vuelta short of full fitness, he seemed motivated to get something out of his season.
"Since the Tour, my back has not recovered 100 per cent. That's the slight uncertainty I have going into the Vuelta. We'll see. I hope it goes in the right direction. In any case, it's better than it was at the Tour, but I can't say it's 100 per cent," Pinot said.
"I wanted to be here. After a while, I knew I might not be at 100 per cent at the start, but I still hope to have a good Vuelta. I don't want to end the year at the Tour, and I hope the Vuelta can put me back on the right path, and help me into the winter. I'm counting on the Vuelta to give me the enjoyment that I've not had for quite a while now."
Pinot had been expected to contest for the overall title across the 18 stages on this unique late-season Vuelta. However, he was clear that a concerted GC challenge was not on his mind.
"It's the first time I've come to a Grand Tour without thinking about GC," he said. "I hope to rediscover my sensations and find some form as the days unfold, because between my fatigue from the Tour, the bad weather, and my back, which meant I couldn't do big training rides, my preparation has been difficult. But I'm also here to help David [Gaudu] and bring my experience, if I'm not at 100 per cent.
"There's less pressure, that's for sure, but we're here as a team to have a great Vuelta. I've got confidence in David to get a good result. As for myself, why not go and look for stage wins in the second and third weeks?"
Opportunity for Gaudu
With Pinot playing down his own ability to fight for the red jersey, there's a window of opportunity for former Tour de l'Avenir champion David Gaudu.
The 24-year-old has had an impressive start to his professional career and has been touted as a future Grand Tour contender, but his three-week appearances - consisting of the past three editions of the Tour de France - have so far been spent in Pinot's shadow.
He played a key role as Pinot came close to winning the 2019 Tour - notably on the Col du Tourmalet, which also appears on stage 6 of the Vuelta - but was held back at this year's Tour by crashes ahead of the race and, like Pinot, on the opening day.
"I think we both have the same sort of role. We both want to have a good Vuelta. There are a lot of stages that suit us, starting straight away from tomorrow," Gaudu said.
"Being a leader isn't something that adds a lot of pressure for me. I've had the chance to play my card in a number of week-long races and I'm trying to approach this in the same way.
"Tomorrow I already hope to be up there with the best guys. It's finish that can suit the climber-puncheurs. After that, I hope to discover the race naturally, day by day, taking the stages one at a time. If we see we're up there on GC, that's great, but if not we can look at stages. For now, though, I'm thinking about the first stage and we'll take it from there," said the young Frenchman.
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