Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet have never been easily separated in the month of July. They seem to match one another column inch by column inch in the French press and "Allez Thibaut!" by "Allez Romain!" in the cries of affection from Le Grand Public on the roadside. Small wonder that L'Équipe's series of features on the home favourites in recent days has run under the banner of "Crossed Destinies."
Those entwined fates unravelled slightly on the Tour de France stage 2 team time trial to Brussels, however, as Groupama-FDJ's strong display helped Pinot minimise his losses in the 27.6km test. Bardet and AG2R La Mondiale, by contrast, endured a wretched afternoon, placing 19th out of 22 teams, 1:19 down on winners Jumbo-Visma.
Groupama-FDJ finished the day in 8th place, 32 seconds behind Jumbo-Visma, but they conceded a mere 11 seconds to the Ineos squad of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal. Pinot gained ground on most of his other podium rivals, picking up 9 seconds on Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), 34 on Movistar's Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa – and 48 on Bardet.
Pinot's contentment afterwards was obvious from his body language as he soft-pedalled towards the Groupama-FDJ bus with an arm draped amiably around teammate Rudy Molard's shoulder. A scrum of reporters arrested his progress at the door of the bus, and Pinot could allow himself a playful jab at their expense when it was put to him that his team's proximity to Ineos had been wholly unexpected.
"For you, it was unexpected," Pinot laughed. "But we knew quite well that we were fully capable of doing a good performance. Everybody saw us losing at least a minute, but we knew what we could do. We had one the best teams at the start and we've shown that. We're solid and on form. It's the weakest who count in a team time trial and everybody is strong in this kind of exercise."
Some are rather more equal than others, of course. Stefan Küng was a team time trial world champion at BMC, and the Swiss rider played a pivotal role in Groupama-FDJ's display here, thanks to his treasury of experience of best practice in the discipline as much as his raw strength. "Stefan gives a lot of advice, and that's very important," Pinot said.
The adage may say that a team is only as strong as its weakest link, but it was striking that many of those who matched or exceeded expectations on Sunday were powered by an especially gifted time triallists – Tony Martin at Jumbo-Visma, Rohan Dennis at Bahrain-Merida, and, of course, Küng at Groupama-FDJ. AG2R, by contrast, had some solid rouleurs but no blue-chip time trialling talent like Küng.
"I've won a lot of time team trials and I come from the track. That all helps, but my most important role was to give the team confidence and say: 'Guys, you're strong, you're well prepared, there's no reason why we can't be up there with the others," Küng said. "In the really hard moments, it was up to me to make long turns to calm things down, but you need everybody to do a good performance."
Groupama-FDJ's display came in spite of two crashes during the stage, with Matthieu Ladagnous dislocating a finger, while David Gaudu sustained a hand injury when he fell in the final kilometre, though both men will continue in the race on Monday.
In the overall standings, Pinot lies 37th overall, 42 seconds behind maillot jaune Mike Teunissen, but just 11 seconds off the Ineos pairing of Thomas and Bernal. The exercise in damage limitation could scarcely have been more successful. "We've worked a lot on the team time trial," Pinot said. "If you don't work on it, it's very complicated."
AG2R La Mondiale's subdued performance seemed to bear out Pinot's thesis. Before the stage, Tony Gallopin confessed that the squad had undertaken less specific preparation for the team time trial than they had in 2018, when they placed 12th in Cholet.
Directeur sportif Julien Jurdie admitted to disappointment at his team's low placing in the Brussels team time trial, though he argued that their eventual deficit was smaller than they had anticipated beforehand. "A mixed performance. First, the place, 19th: we're a bit disappointed," Jurdie said. "But we most analyse the seconds lost. It's not that significant, it's still respectable."
Those thoughts were echoed by AG2R La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu, who maintained that Bardet's current overall deficit – he lies 1:29 down in 108th – is roughly in line with their expectations for this point in the race. "We hoped for a gap of between a minute and 1:30, and we were a little under a minute behind our principal rivals, notably Ineos. I'm quite satisfied that we limited the damage," said Lavenu.
Bardet's weakness against the watch proved his undoing on the 2017 Tour, where he finished third overall after matching Chris Froome in the high mountains. On this Tour, the Frenchman's challenge must still endure the individual time trial in Pau on stage 13, but Lavenu looked to take heart from his leader's own display during the collective effort on Sunday.
"Romain was good, very good. He was one of the riders driving the team," Lavenu said. "When you've got climbers and rouleurs in the same team it's hard to stay compact, but Romain was among the guys who were going strongly and that's pretty encouraging."