Pinot: When you're third in the Tour de France you belong at the front

After 30 years without a French winner, there is pressure on the shoulders of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and his compatriots at this year’s Tour de France

Pinot's third place finish in 2014 and recent impressive form at the Tour de Suisse has lead to French newspaper L'Equipe adding his name to that of the Big Four -Froome, Contador, Quintana and Nibali. After a challenging 2013 season, Pinot found solace in his resurgence at last year’s Tour and is upbeat about his chances this year.

"My third place last year gave me confidence," he said in an interview with the Reuters news agency. "When you're third in the Tour you belong in the front of the peloton, this is something I forced into my head."

After making the top 10 in his debut at the 2012 Tour de France, excitement grew among the French and Pinot was quickly labelled as a serious Grand Tour contender. It all came tumbling down around him the following season as a fear of descents, caused by a serious crash years before, saw him left almost paralysed as the other GC contenders raced away. He would eventually abandon ahead of stage 16 due to illness, more than an hour down on the race leader Chris Froome.

A year on, Pinot had worked hard to conquer his fears and had notched up seventh place at the 2013 Vuelta when he took to the start line in Yorkshire. A complete turnaround to the previous edition, Pinot found himself in a tight battle for the young rider’s classification with fellow Frenchman Romain Bardet. Knowing Pinot’s weakness, Bardet’s Ag2r-La Mondiale team tried to pile on the pressure on the descents but a newly focused Pinot was having nothing of it.

"The fact they tried to hurt me in the descent was a sign of weakness from them, it just showed they were unable to drop me in the climbs," he said. "What they did gave me a boost. I was angry.”

They’ll know better this time, as Pinot goes into the race as the clear French favourite.

A quiet rider off the bike, Pinot is much more aggressive on it.

"What he strives for is fighting with the top guns in the mountains. Winner or loser, that's what he loves. In these cases he's like Don Quixote, he's not scared of them,” Pinot’s FDJ boss Marc Madiot explained to Reuters. "He's got character, there are conflicts with him. Sometimes I yell at him, sometimes he yells at me but it's always quickly forgotten.”

Pinot has showed his form in recent weeks with victory on the queen stage of the Tour de Suisse. The win put him into the race lead but a poor time trial saw him slip off the podium to fourth. Like many of his compatriots, Pinot is not a strong time triallist, making this year’s Tour an almost perfect route for his shot at the yellow jersey.

He’ll be at home in the mountains as he tries to deal out the pain to his rivals. "I get my kicks from hurting the others," said Pinot.

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