Pinot pointed toward Tour de France podium: 'I can be up there'

Try as the French might to raise Thibaut Pinot's hopes of winning the Tour de France, the Groupama-FDJ rider and his team manager Marc Madiot were anything but wildly enthusiastic about their chances of long-term success on the second rest day.

Last week's rest day saw Madiot in defiant mode. He repeated, time and again, in his strident tones "we're still in the match," as he and Pinot tried to assimilate an unnecessary time loss in last Monday's echelons. But he again had one arm draped protectively behind Pinot on the sofa as they took rest-day media questions for the second time in a week. This time, in marked contrast to last Monday, rather than defiance, Madiot was trying to play down his protege's chances. It was as if the fire he wanted to light so badly last Monday was now at risk of burning too fiercely too soon.

"It's encouraging for us to see so many of you here," Madiot told the assembled journalists as they wilted in the intense summer heat by way of introduction. But despite media numbers normally being an indirect indication of a team on the rise, he then beat down expectations by saying, "we're going to continue with the same strategy as before.

"We're going to be offensive whenever we can, just like we were in the Pyrenees, but we're not going to look too far ahead in time and we're going to take it one day at a time. There's going to be no talk of whether we can get a stage win or a podium or whatever. The final classification is only going to be the sum total of what we've managed to do day by day in these three weeks of the Tour de France.

"We are happy, calm, and we'll go on like that until Sunday. Now"- he said looking at Pinot - "I'll hand things over to the master-of-ceremonies."

Fourth overall, Pinot said he was far happier than he had been a week ago when his Tour all but came apart in the echelons of stage 8. But he insisted on staying cautious, like Madiot, pointing out that "even so, the hardest days are still to come."

"I'm still in the match," he said, echoing Madiot's words of the previous weeks, but he added that the bigger change was in his overall attitude to the Tour, which had paid off dividends globally. "I'm not like I was before when everything pissed me off a bit," he said. "I'm on the right track now in the Tour, I can be up there."

However, with his track record of illnesses as well as his time loss in the echelons last Monday - L'Equipe report that Groupama-FDJ are having Pinot's hotel rooms specially cleaned each day in a bid to combat possible illnesses. Groupama-FDJ were doing anything but throw caution to the winds despite their most recent success. As the curtain rose on the Tour's third week this Monday, Pinot warned time and again that he was "keeping my feet on the ground. If there's one thing I've learned in racing, it's that things can change very fast. That's why I'm not getting over-excited."

Perhaps the biggest indication of Pinot's confidence in his long-term chances did not lie in any stated ambition but in his visible determination not to let anything affect him in achieving what he could in this year's Tour de France.

Given the stress people expect him to feel, being a top favourite to win the Tour for the host country after a 34-year drought, for example, Pinot fired back, "if it was something that was going to crush me, I'd be already on the back foot.

"When it came to the Tourmalet on Saturday, I was under immense pressure. But in fact the public's support and expectations are boosting me now. And I think it helps Julian [Alaphilippe] as well."

Pinot once again insisted that for all his aggressive, gung-ho attitude on the climbs, he would not be looking too far ahead and forging overly ambitious plans. "I've done some nice stuff in this race, but I'm still only fourth overall," he pointed out.

Perhaps significantly, Pinot was not prepared to over-state the obstacles that he could face, either. "Tomorrow [Tuesday] is a flat stage, but there could be crosswinds again, and that's going to be worrying me. I don't like that, but we'll make do." He was equally phlegmatic about the heat, a factor that has done significant damage to his racing in the past and which in Nimes on Monday was far more notable than in the Pyrenees.

"It's not something I particularly like," Pinot agreed. "But I don't think anybody likes racing at 40 degrees and it's the same for everybody. Yesterday was very hot and sticky weather and I don't think I had any problems, just the opposite in fact. When you're in form, you can get through the heat." He was equally dismissive of possibly suffering at altitude, saying "I've won in the Tour de Suisse at more than 2,000 metres," [ in 2015, -ed.] that's not going to be a problem:"

His current form, he said, was "on a similar level to that of the Vuelta" - where he won two stages - "and Lombardia last year. And that's how I want it."

He was equally respectful towards his rivals, without being overly deferent. "I'm not scared of anybody, I wanted to win on Saturday but on Sunday, now I have that stage win, I started to think about the overall as well. So I went from a long way out. I like attacking without calculating. The team structures are a bit weaker than they were in other years on the Tour, and the race is nicer as a result."

As for the other contenders, Pinot argued the "top five or six are all at the same level, I'm not seeing one is particularly strong in comparison to the others."

As as for himself? In comparison with other years on the Tour, where he has had three abandons in the last six editions, Pinot recognised that he is on another level. "After last year, I realised that I needed the Tour to really explode as a rider. Fortunately, this year, I'm in top shape and this year's Tour has a magnificent route for me."

However, before anybody could think that Pinot was getting ahead of himself, the Frenchman is convinced this year's race will go down to the wire. Or as he put it " think Val Thorens will be the real decider in this year's race."

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.