Rest day press conferences can often be stuffy affairs, but the atmosphere tends to be rather more informal at Groupama-FDJ. Dressed in a hoody and a pair of shorts, Thibaut Pinot ambled into the lobby of the Giardini dei Principi hotel in Città Sant'Angelo on Monday morning and greeted waiting reporters as though he were pottering through his own living room.
Then again, Italy feels something like home for Pinot, who currently lies fourth overall in the Giro d'Italia, 45 seconds behind maglia rosa Simon Yates. The Frenchman was so taken with his Giro debut twelve months ago, after all, that he insisted on returning to the race this year, even though his team’s sponsors would doubtless prefer if their star man focused his attention exclusively on the Tour de France. When it was put to Pinot that he rode the Tour for work and the Giro for pleasure, he didn’t entirely disagree.
"Yes and no," Pinot said. "The Giro certainly suits me better, and it's a race where I feel better, so it's true that I take more pleasure from racing at the Giro. I like the parcours: we've done nine stages so far, and we've already had two big mountaintop finishes and a couple of stages for puncheurs. You're never bored."
In the nine days of action on this Giro, Pinot has scarcely missed a beat. Winner of the Tour of the Alps in the build-up to the race, the 27-year-old confirmed his condition by placing 3rd on Mount Etna, 3rd at Montevergine di Mercogliano and second in the same time as Yates on Gran Sasso d'Italia.
"I've had some good placings, it's a good start and a good sign at this point," Pinot said, who added that he was not overly dismayed at missing out on stage victory. "It's an objective of course, but I was more disappointed at letting the win slip away on Saturday because at Gran Sasso d'Italia, I just came up against a stronger guy."
Although Yates has been the preeminent climber in the Giro to this point availing of his explosiveness to snatch seconds away from the rest, Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Vittorio Algeri has cited Pinot as the favourite for final overall victory in Rome. Pinot, meanwhile, believes Yates and defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) merit top billing.
"I'd put Dumoulin level with Yates, I would say they each have a 50 per cent chance of winning," Pinot said. "For the moment, I'd put myself behind them, with [Domenico] Pozzovivo and [Esteban] Chaves. For the moment that's how I see it, but I hope I can surprise.
"With the two Mitchelton riders, the problem will be knowing who to chase, because you can't always chase them both. But I think Yates is stronger in the time trial, and I'd hope to be better than Chaves there. For the moment, I think Yates is the number one, given what he did at Etna."
Chris Froome's place among the pantheon of challengers is rather less clear after his subdued opening week, which was bookended by time losses in the Jerusalem time trial and on Gran Sasso d'Italia. The Team Sky rider – competing despite his ongoing salbutamol case – finds himself 2:27 off the pace, and, in theory at least, compelled to go on the offensive.
"Sky might change their tactics and Froome might start attacking from distance a bit like Contador," Pinot said. "It's something I'd like because it makes the race harder and that might suit me. So far, the efforts have been more for puncheurs, but from next weekend, that will be different."
Saturday's leg to the Zoncolan is the site of the next expected skirmish between the general classification contenders, while the stage 16 time trial in Trentino will set the tone for the demanding final week in the high Alps. "The time trial is the big question mark for me, but I’ve done some good ones in the past," said Pinot, who warned that the second week is not without its pitfalls. "The whole week could be dangerous and there could be some bad weather too. We’ll have to pay attention all the time."
The extended transfers endured by the Giro caravan since it touched down in Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport on May 1 has been a talking point on this race, but Pinot is not naturally inclined towards complaint, especially on his beloved corsa rosa.
"At the Giro, you know there'll be long transfers and long stages because the country is stretched out, but for the moment we haven't suffered too much," Pinot said. "There’ve been days where we've arrived in the hotel late but on the Etna stage I had my massage on the bus, for instance, so you can gain time that way."
Pinot's affection for Italy and all things Italian began, like Stendhal, on a mountainside as a teenager. The novelist crossed the Great Saint-Bernard Pass into Italy in 1800; Pinot was smitten once he raced the European Junior Championships in Verbania in 2008. Victory at the Giro della Valle d'Aosta the following year only cemented the relationship.
"As an under-23 rider, races in Italy are a real reference point, especially because of the parcours," Pinot said. "I saw last year that the Baby Giro had finishes that we've had on this race, so they're not afraid to put in really difficult climbs even for underage riders.
"It's a magnificent country. Every day you discover new landscapes and it’s a country I've come to know on my bike."
Pinot is seeking to become only the fourth Frenchman to win the Giro, but while Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault’s triumphs were an almost Napoleonic conquest of the cycling world, an extension of their dominion beyond the Alps, his efforts in Italy perhaps have more in common with those of the most recent French winner.
Already a double winner of Milan-San Remo, Laurent Fignon seemed almost to rediscover himself en route to victory in 1989 after some trying experiences on the Tour de France in the preceding years. Pinot's palpable enjoyment of life on the Giro, meanwhile, contrasts sharply with his less felicitous and more pressured outings in July in recent seasons. For Pinot, the Giro seems like fun, a word that can often feel verboten in modern cycling.
"I wasn't even born. That was what, almost 30 years ago," Pinot said when asked about the prospect of emulating Fignon. "If I could be the next, then it would certainly be a huge victory."
Not that overall victory is the be-all and end-all of Pinot’s Giro. "With the experience of the last two Tours de France, I've learned to put things in perspective," he said. "When you take blows like I've had on the Tour, you forget them quickly and get on to other things. It's only sport."
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