There is no more daunting school for a young rider than the Tour de France and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat) has had a wide range of lessons in his two weeks on the greatest race of all.
For the most part, Pinot has passed his tests with flying colours. He coped admirably with the pressures of riding in front of his home fans at La Planche des Belles Filles and then soared to a stylish victory at Porrentruy the following day.
That win prompted a crash course in the demands of an expectant French media, and while Pinot flagged slightly in the subsequent Besançon time trial, he lifted himself once again as the Tour entered the Alps, tilting nonchalantly at some lofty reputations on the road to La Toussuire.
On what seemed set to be a routine transitional day, however, Pinot suffered his most trying moment to date during the early exchanges of stage 12 to Annonay Davezieux. As Sky set a fierce pace to stifle the flurry of attacks on the 1st category Col de Granier, Pinot was among those riders jettisoned off the back of the peloton.
For once, the graceful climber appeared leaden-legged as the road veered upwards, and Pinot found himself two minutes off the back and suffering by the time he reached the summit of the Granier. Fortunately, his teammate Jérémy Roy was on hand to help guide him back to safety, and Pinot returned to the peloton as its urgency slackened on the long drop towards Saint-Cassien.
"I could feel yesterday's stage in my legs and I felt really bad early on," Pinot said after crossing the line alongside the main favourites in the peloton. "Luckily things calmed down and I was able to get back on.
"I had been hanging on as best I could before Jérémy Roy dropped back to give me a hand. After that, it was important to try and stay well-placed and to pay attention in the finale, and I managed to finish in the main group."
Such was the fearlessness with which he attacked on both the Col du Mollard and La Toussuire en route to second place the previous day, it was easy to forget that Pinot is just 22 years of age and the youngest rider in the Tour. Given that this is the first time he has tackled a race more than a week in length, it was inevitable that his precocity would begin to show at some point.
"It's the first time that I've done two consecutive weeks of racing so it's all a bit new for me," Pinot admitted. "I gave everything yesterday so I didn't have a lot left today. On top of that, I didn't sleep very well last night, so it was hard."
Young and carefree
As Pinot walked from his bus to his hotel in a baseball cap and with a backpack slung over his shoulder at La Toussuire previous evening, he had looked more like a student ambling home from a lecture than a man who had just outclimbed the yellow jersey of the Tour de France.
It was easy to understand, then, how Friday's L'Équipe had described him as the "definition of insouciance". But in reality, Pinot's attitude is perhaps more pragmatic than simply carefree, and in spite of his tender years, on stage 12 he held his nerve even as he encountered the dreaded jours sans.
"It was just a bit like the day after my win at Porrentruy [when he lost over five minutes in the time trial – ed.] I was tired because I'd done a nice race the day before and given everything," he said.
Pinot remains in 10th place overall, and just 1:54 off the white jersey of Tejay van Garderen (BMC). On Friday's evidence, Pinot's lack of Grand Tour experience may well be telling in the third week, but for now, the Frenchman is not looking more than one day ahead. "Tomorrow's stage to Cap d'Agde seems easy on paper but in reality it could be quite nervous," he warned. "It's a stage that could cause problems."
Before he pedalled off towards the FDJ-BigMat bus, Pinot was asked if he had been affected by the attention his stirring displays had earned him. "A little bit," he admitted. "I've been swarmed by the media and so on, and that does affect your recovery time a little bit." Another lesson learned, even if he might just have to get used to it.
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