Solo la vittoria è bella – 'Only victory is beautiful' – reads the tattoo on Thibaut Pinot's right arm, and the Frenchman with a very public predilection for all things Italian was loath to let his debut Giro d'Italia pass by without recording a stage win.
After gaining more than a minute on his rivals on the Dolomite tappone on Thursday and then impressing at Piancavallo on Friday, it was clear that Pinot was, perhaps alone among the overall contenders, in crescendo as the Giro reached its final day in the mountains on stage 20.
The FDJ man may be in Italy in search of a place on the final podium in Milan, but as the leading group crested the summit of the Giro's final climb of Foza and rode towards Asiago, his thoughts flipped towards claiming the day's spoils.
Pinot had maglia rosa Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) for company in the finale. With Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) chasing just 15 seconds behind, there was little time to take one another's measure in the final kilometre, but Pinot produced a fine sprint to edge out Zakarin and Nibali on the line.
"A stage victory is not more important than riding for GC but this is why I'm a bike rider," Pinot said. "I fight to win races. And it's certainly a nice one today, against the top contenders of the Giro."
Pinot was present and alert when Nibali and Quintana accelerated on the Foza, and seemed the most inclined towards a steady collaboration as they proceeded towards the summit and slowly clawed back Pozzovivo and Zakarin. The cooperation seemed to improve on the altopiano towards the line, though Dumoulin managed to halve his maximum deficit by the finish.
"With Nibali and Quintana, we cooperated very well. We gave 100 per cent, and we didn't count our pedal strokes," Pinot said. "Once we re-joined Pozzovivo and Zakarin, they had the stage win in mind, and I did too in the last two kilometres. However, the fact that we stayed 15 seconds ahead of a strong rouleur like Dumoulin shows that our cooperation was good."
The final podium
Pinot's stage victory elevates him to third overall ahead of Sunday's concluding stage, a flat and fast 29.3km time trial from Monza to Milan. He trails Quintana's maglia rosa by just 43 seconds, and is only four seconds off Nibali's second place, though he is mindful that Dumoulin, now fourth at 53 seconds, is the favourite to claim overall victory at the death.
"At the start in Sardinia, I said that I wanted a stage win and a place on the final podium. I've done the hardest part," Pinot said. "Now there are 30 kilometres left, and I'll give it my all to finish the Giro with no regrets."
Pinot has improved markedly against the watch over the past three years, even if his lacklustre display in the Montefalco time trial on stage 10 was perhaps the low point of his entire Giro. He lost four seconds per kilometre to Dumoulin there, but the Giro's final leg offers a different kind of test.
"I'll fight for the overall victory but Dumoulin probably remains the favourite," Pinot said. "I also remember that Quintana won a time trial at the Route du Sud ahead of Sylvain Chavanel last year, so he can defend himself. It'll be a superb battle. Nobody is able to say who will win the Giro, and that's beautiful."
However it finishes, Pinot will come away from his Giro debut ever more convinced of the beauty of life outside the month of July. As a French talent riding on a French team, he was compelled to build five successive seasons around the Tour de France, a race where he has known more heartbreak than happiness. Even before his sparkling 2012 debut at La Grande Boucle, however, Pinot wondered privately if the Giro was a race better-suited to his characteristics.
He has a longstanding pedigree south of the Alps, after all, dating back to his amateur days and his breakout win at the 2009 Giro della Valle d'Aosta. As a young professional in 2011, Pinot claimed the Settimana Lombarda, attracting covetous glances from Italian teams. In recent seasons, Pinot has impressed at the Tour of Lombardy, where he placed third in 2015, Tirreno-Adriatico, where he placed third this season, and the Tour of the Alps, where he won stage in the build-up to the Giro.
Ahead of stage 15 in Valdengo last weekend, Gilles Delion was among the well-wishers from across the Franco-Italian border to visit Pinot at the FDJ bus. Delion, winner of the Tour of Lombardy in 1990, was another stylish French rider with a penchant for racing south of the Alps. Like Pinot, he was aware, too, that victory was not quite the only beautiful thing.
"Whatever happens tomorrow, I hope to come back to the Giro in the future," Pinot said. "I was always convinced this race suits me. It's gone even beyond my hopes so far, I have nothing negative to say about the Giro."
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