Seven years have passed since Thibaut Pinot marked his Tour de France debut with a sparkling stage victory at Porrentruy and 10th place overall in Paris. A day after the race finished, the front page of L'Équipe asked the premature but obvious question that would serve as the ambient noise to his career for years afterwards: "Can Pinot win the Tour de France?"
Pinot's relationship with La Grande Boucle in the intervening period has been a tumultuous one, however, punctuated by altogether more disappointment than joy. He placed 3rd overall in 2014 and claimed victory on Alpe d'Huez a year later, but his three other appearances – in 2013, 2016 and 2017 – have ended in premature abandons and been followed by stinging criticism. In time, the question has become a different one: does Pinot want to win the Tour de France at all?
"It's not an obsession," Pinot admitted to L'Équipe on the eve of this year's race. "I like my life as it is at the moment. It's the life I dreamt of and if I win the Tour de France, I won't have this life anymore. Do I want to change my life? No."
Unlike his fellow Franc-Comptois Julien Sorel, antihero of Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Pinot has never appeared driven by overwhelming ambition. And yet, he wouldn't pass up the opportunity if it presented itself. What's more, it just might this time around, in a Tour where Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin are absent through injury, at a race where question marks hover over so many contenders, and in a year where Pinot's form has been unimpeachable.
He has started his Tour impressively, too. Groupama-FDJ produced a strong team time trial in Brussels and Pinot picked up 5 seconds on most of his GC rivals when the peloton split at Épernay. Five days in, he lies 13th overall, 52 seconds down on maillot jaune Julian Alaphilippe.
It scarcely needs repeating that a French rider hasn't won the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985. Bringing an end to 34 years of hurt would catapult Pinot to a level of mainstream stardom that would undoubtedly disrupt the calm of the life he has assembled for himself in Mélisey, the village on the fringe of the Vosges where he tends to his sheep and eight goats in his spare time, far from the madding crowds of July, and where his father Regis is mayor.
"It's the dream of every rider, but it brings inconveniences with it," Pinot said. "The French rider who wins the Tour will be a star. And do I want to be a star? No."
In years past, both in victory and defeat, Pinot has betrayed obvious discomfort at the sheer weight of attention he receives from his home press and public each July, but he has cut a more relaxed figure in the opening days of this Tour. Perhaps his 'sabbatical' at the Giro d'Italia these past two seasons, where the scrutiny was rather less overwhelming, helped to cleanse the palate, though Groupama-FDJ directeur sportif Philippe Mauduit believes it is simply a case of learning through experience.
"He did a good performance when he was quite young and afterwards it was hard to deal with that pressure and expectation from everybody – the media and the French people," Mauduit told Cyclingnews. "Now he's getting close to 30 and he realises that it is all something external, something he can't control. He lets that pressure go, because there is nothing he can do about it. I think now he is free in his mind, and that's pretty important."
On Thursday at La Planche des Belles Filles, Pinot will be the régional de l'étape. The summit finish of stage 6 is a mere 20km from his home in Mélisey and no other rider in the Tour peloton will have scaled the ascent as often as Pinot, who has also been on hand for each of its three appearances at the Tour to date.
His best showing was his second place behind Vincenzo Nibali in 2014, which proved to be the finest Tour of his career. The 2019 Tour won't be decided at La Planche, but it's hard to avoid the sense that it will be, for better or worse, a portent of what is to follow for Pinot between here and Paris.
"A lot of supporters will be waiting for me on Thursday and I hope to respond present by getting a good result," Pinot said earlier this week. "La Planche has often revealed some truths on recent Tours. It's a real test. You can't hide because it's very hard."
It seems contradictory that Pinot has devoted the last ten months of his life to preparing for a race he isn't entirely certain he wants to win, but then the 29-year-old is a man of many paradoxes. In the pages of Libération last year, Pierre Carrey described Pinot's bucolic lifestyle away from cycling as "reclusive-open," a tag that could just as readily apply itself to the rider's interactions with the press and public in July, where his inherent courtesy is married to a reluctance to occupy the limelight.
Ever since Pinot's travails on the 2013 Tour and, specifically, his calamitous descent of the Col de Pailhères, he has been criticised for fragility, both mental and physical, yet his greatest triumphs have followed on from his severest setbacks, which suggests a certain robustness. Illness forced him off the podium and out of the race on the final weekend of the Giro, for instance, but Pinot returned in the Autumn to win two stages of the Vuelta a España and the Tour of Lombardy.
Those victories flared up the seven-year-old itch all over again – can Pinot win the Tour? – and the external anticipation has grown steadily through the build-up, particularly once Froome and Dumoulin were ruled out. "It's this year or never," read one headline in June. Pinot, for his part, told L'Équipe that he was convinced at some point in his career, "the planets will align" and he will conjure up a Tour to exceed his 2014 display.
On Thursday afternoon, the bunting and banners will all be for one man, his supporters daring to dream that this might be his Tour. The planets might align this year but, then again, they might not. No matter. Whatever about Paris, Thibaut Pinot will always have Mélisey.
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