Ten minutes into Thibaut Pinot's rest day press conference on the Tour de France, Marc Madiot steered the conversation back towards the message he had already touched upon during the short speech he had made to open proceedings.
The Groupama-FDJ manager was seated beside his rider, an arm draped almost protectively across the back of the couch, with reporters standing and sitting all around them. Without shifting so much as an inch in his seat, Madiot suddenly projected his voice to fill the entire lobby of Hotel La Réserve on the outskirts of Albi.
"He's still in the match," Madiot interjected, after Pinot had fielded a question on the 1:40 he conceded in the crosswinds on stage 10. "We're still only a minute or so down on six or seven good riders. We're going to get stuck in. OK, it hurts, we took a bit of a blow, but we're still in the match. With cycling, it's never finished – never!"
For nine days, Pinot's Tour had been nigh-on impeccable, from Groupama-FDJ's fine team time trial in Brussels to his attack in the finale at Saint-Étienne with Julian Alaphilippe. After so many doleful Julys, Pinot was navigating in serene waters, the stars seemingly for once aligned to help chart his course to the mountains.
When Pinot dropped to 11th overall on Monday evening, 2:33 behind the yellow jersey Alaphilippe, however, it was hard to dispel the sense that his Tour had suddenly been blown off course. Pinot's distress was obvious at the finish line – "What do you want me to say? It was a shit day" – but Madiot insisted that the situation was far from irretrievable.
"From reading the newspapers this morning and from looking at various cycling websites, I had the impression that we were preparing for a burial, but I can assure you that we are very much alive and in good health," Madiot said at the start of the press conference.
Pinot, an avowed football fan, would have appreciated the metaphor that followed, even if his beloved Paris Saint-Germain have made a habit of being the wrong side of dramatic turnarounds in the Champions League.
"We've done ten stages, and now the ten hardest stages are left," Madiot said. "If we were in a football match, we'd say we were at half-time and the score was 1-0. 1-0 is not a defeat. It's not the end of the match. It's never over."
Pinot: It was hard to accept
Pinot, in his soft-spoken way, evinced a similar point of view to his manager. The frustration of Monday afternoon had been the unravelling of so much good work in the opening week of the race, but there is still ample time in which to stitch his race back together.
"It wasn't the others who gained 1:40, it was us who lost 1:40, and that's hard," Pinot said. "There was a lot of anger and a lot of frustration, too, because we didn't deserve that. It was hard to accept. It's hard because we had made no errors before then. We made one error, and we're weren't good collectively, but like Marc said, we're still in the match.
"It's a disappointment and a frustration, I won't hide that, but that can be a strength too. The morning of the time trial, I'll think about it and on the Tourmalet stage too. Compared to the Giro last year, it's nothing."
Pinot described Monday's stage as "one of the three most nervous" he had ever encountered in his Tour appearance to date, but he gently rejected the idea that he had in any way underestimated the threat posed by the wind on the exposed run-in to Albi. His Groupama-FDJ squad had been posted near the head of the peloton but lost a crucial foothold when they went left rather than right at a roundabout. They were caught on the back foot when the peloton splintered shortly afterwards.
"We should have been more vigilant at that moment. The split happened two riders in front of me. That's what's frustrating," Pinot said, who noted that Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte and Jakob Fuglsang had all suffered the same fate. "Those riders are in the same situation, with the same frustration as us this morning."
The Tour resumes on Wednesday with a stage to Toulouse that ought to favour the sprinters, before a first foray into the Pyrenees over the Hourquette d'Ancizan to Bagnères-de-Bigorre the following day. The troika of stages next weekend, however, will surely be the point when this Tour begins to take something approaching its definitive shape. Friday's stage 13 time trial in Pau is the prelude to a summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet and another demanding leg to Prat d'Albis.
"Those are three stages where a lot can happen. We know the Tourmalet, it's a summit finish, it will hurt. I hope to have the legs that can allow me to take back time," Pinot said. "In the Pyrenees and Alps, we'll look to ride aggressively. We've got a team that can do that."
While Alaphilippe wears the maillot jaune – "For me, in any case, he's a serious candidate to do something in general classification," Pinot warned – the road to victory in Paris still runs through the Team Ineos duo of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, currently second and third overall. The British squad, previously Team Sky, have been dominant in six of the past seven Tours and helped to seal Pinot's time losses on stage 10.
"On the flat, they're very strong, they're the best team," Pinot said. "But at La Planche des Belles, we had no reason to envy Ineos and that's something that gives us confidence for what's to come. It could be that they've planned their build-up to be stronger in the second and third week. We'll start to see on Thursday and certainly on the Tourmalet on Saturday, where I think they'll try to impose their rhythm. That's where we'll see if they're as strong as in other years."
The Tourmalet is also where Pinot's second half will begin in earnest. An early goal scored or conceded there will have a telling impact on the remainder of this particular match. "The match continues," Madiot repeated. "We're not going to go back to the dressing room at the first problem."
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