As the yellow jersey group hurtled down the Port de Balès and into Bagnères-de-Luchon, Thibaut Pinot's older brother Julien, a coach at FDJ.fr, made his way carefully through the finish area carrying a home trainer.
Throughout this Tour de France, Pinot's post-race interviews have taken place as he warms down outside his team bus, but with five kilometres of stage 16 remaining, it was already clear that there would be a change to the usual ritual.
Pinot was by then almost two minutes up on Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and destined to face podium ceremonies and television interviews as the new wearer of the white jersey, a by-product of his elevation to third in the overall standings.
On crossing the line, plan B was duly enacted. Pinot dutifully spent five minutes pedalling in a quiet spot beside the mixed zone, before clambering atop the podium to receive bouquet, the plaudits and the maillot blanc.
"It was a good operation today," Pinot admitted as he made his way through the mixed zone shortly afterwards. "I had very good legs and I was very happy I managed to distance some of my rivals on such a tough climb. I think I had my best legs of the Tour so far, and I took advantage of that."
Indeed, FDJ's diligent planning was not restricted to the warm-down; their tactics were sound throughout the Tour's longest stage. When Pinot launched two forceful accelerations four kilometres from the top of the Port de Balès, he had teammate Arnold Jeannesson for company in the select group that formed, while Bardet and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) were already engaged in damage limitation exercises behind.
"I did and I didn't know what was happening down the road," Pinot said. "I knew that we had dropped van Garderen and Bardet but I couldn't really think about them, I had to ride my own race. I just needed to get over the top of the climb as best I could and then see how things were."
Pinot plans an attack before the descent off of Port de Balès
Last year, Pinot's Tour fell apart when he was stricken by fear on the way down another Pyrenean climb, the Col de Pailhères, and he was understandably wary of the descent of the Port de Balès. With that in mind, FDJ had placed Jérémy Roy in the day's early break, and he survived in front long enough to serve as Pinot's poisson pilote on the descent, safely guiding him to the finish alongside Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde.
"I needed to attack, it was planned. I wanted to be in front over the top of the climb because the descent of the Port de Balès is quite sinuous, so I needed to take time on the way up," Pinot said. "Arnold gave me enormous help on the climb, and then having Jérémy on the descent was perfect."
By day's end, the 24-year-old had climbed to third place overall, 1:34 ahead of Bardet and 4:19 clear of van Garderen. Although Pinot was loath to declare van Garderen's podium challenge at an end, he noted that Jean-Christophe Péraud – now in 4th and just 1:02 off the podium – might be his biggest rival.
"Right now, this third place is only provisional," Pinot insisted. "To talk about being third on the Tour, we'll have to wait and see where I am on Saturday evening because with a time trial of 54km on the second last day, you can lose time very quickly. I still need to take more time on van Garderen and Péraud.
"Péraud is climbing well at this Tour and we know he is strong in the time trial. I think he might be my biggest rival for the podium, so I'll need to take time off him tomorrow or Thursday."
Frenchman optimistic about his chances on Pla d'Adet
During the rest day in Pennautier, Pinot had explained that he preferred the longer, steadier ascents of the Alps to the more uneven gradients of the Pyrenees, but he was optimistic about his prospects of fastening his grip on third place on the summit finishes at Pla d'Adet and Hautacam in the next two days.
"Tomorrow is a very hard stage," Pinot warned. "Pla d'Adet is quite a short climb but it’s really tough. When I went to reconnoitre the stage in the month of May I was surprised by how hard it is. So tomorrow there could be some big gaps again even though it's the shortest stage. The cols are hard, there's very little time to recover in the valleys – it's the hardest stage of the Tour tomorrow."
Pinot has featured alongside Bardet on the front page of L'Équipe for the past four days. One senses that on Wednesday morning, that honor will be his alone, and when FDJ manager Marc Madiot spoke to reporters afterwards, he looked to downplay expectations and dismissed the notion that Pinot could even divest Nibali of yellow.
"Looking for more than what we have now would be a bit much – a podium finish would already be exceptional but we have to stay concentrated," Madiot said. "We're going well but we're not at the end of the line yet. There are still some difficult days ahead of us."
Madiot was to the point, too, when asked if he was surprised by what Pinot had achieved on the first day in the Pyrenees. He limited himself to one word: "No."
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