Julien Pinot was the first to be cocooned by microphones and television cameras outside the Groupama-FDJ bus following stage 8 of the Tour de France in Saint-Étienne. Brother and coach of Thibaut Pinot, he balanced praise for his younger sibling's offensive over the final ascent of the Côte de la Jaillère with caution about the long road ahead. The frères Pinot know from onerous experience that July is a fickle month. "We know very well that the race lasts three weeks," he smiled.
A few yards away, another scrum was building up around David Gaudu, who had helped position Thibaut Pinot on the final climb of a demanding day in the foothills of the Massif Central. Sitting on his turbo trainer and sipping from a can of Perrier, the youngster spoke admiringly of how his leader had followed Julian Alaphilippe's rasping attack a little under 13 kilometres from the finish. "It's a climb that suited puncheurs but Thibaut had the punch to follow Julian," Gaudu said.
Pinot himself, meanwhile, was delayed in the France Télévisions studio near the finish line for a prearranged appointment to appear on their post-stage analysis show, meaning the reporters posted by his team bus had a long wait before they could hear his thoughts on the day's stage. A soigneur emerged from the bus and called out in jest: "I'm available for an interview!"
The key moment on the stage came 300 metres from the summit of the Côte de la Jaillère, where the road narrowed imperceptibly, and the gradient stiffened to 15 per cent. Alaphilippe careered out of the reduced peloton in search of a lost maillot jaune, conceded at La Planche des Belles Filles two days ago. Pinot, not indifferent to donning the same jersey in Paris, followed and an impromptu alliance was formed.
After picking up a 5-second time bonus at the summit, Alaphilippe plunged down the other side of the hill in pursuit of lone escapee Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal). As soon as the terrain allowed, Pinot took long turns on the front, and they began to eke out an advantage on the reduced yellow jersey group behind.
Come the finish line outside the Stade Geoffroy Guichard, where De Gendt held on to win by 6 seconds, Alaphilippe had done enough to take back yellow. Pinot, who placed second on the stage, picked up some 20 seconds on his podium rivals, as well as an additional 8 seconds in bonuses. He now lies third overall, 53 seconds down on Alaphilippe but now 19 seconds ahead of defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), who had to chase back after a crash ahead of the final climb.
"Since last night I knew that Julian would attack with 300 metres to go on the climb and I was waiting for that moment all day," Pinot said on France Télévisions. "I was ready to follow his wheel, and I was fortunate to have very good legs. It was hard on the descent. Julian took some corners a bit too fast for me, I got one wrong and it was a bit scary. But I had an interest in collaborating with him, just as it was in his interest to collaborate with me."
It was striking that Alaphilippe made no attempt to contest the sprint for second place in Saint-Étienne, seemingly content to allow Pinot snatch further seconds from his GC rivals out of appreciation for his company on the plunge to Saint-Étienne. In the overall standings, Pinot is now the best-placed of the pre-race favourites. "If someone had said beforehand that I'd be third overall after the first week, I'd have signed for that straightaway," Pinot said.
On Thomas' crash: The race was on
On arriving at the Groupama-FDJ bus, Pinot was ushered into a high stool to talk through the stage all over again, this time for the benefit of radio and written press. "It was very, very hard. It was very tiring all day long," Pinot said. "It was a very good day for me. Even if I didn't get the victory, it was still something very positive. Today wasn't a stage where it was planned that we would attack, so I'm happy."
Pinot's Tour began on an upbeat note with Groupama-FDJ's fine showing in the Brussels team time trial and his own placing towards the front on the punchy finale at Épernay a day later, while he was again to the fore on home roads La Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday. His display at Saint-Étienne felt like a confirmation of those early impressions. Pinot has singled himself out as the man most likely to challenge the Ineos duo of Thomas and Egan Bernal.
"My form is very good," Pinot said. "I'm at the level I was at in the final part of last season. My preparation went well, but there are still two weeks to go, with the Pyrenees, the time trial and the Alps."
Thomas was brought down in a crash ahead of the Jaillère and while he managed to latch back on to the group of contenders on the lower portion of the climb, his pursuit left him in no position to track the Alaphilippe-Pinot tandem. "Thomas had a crash, but the race was on, and EF and Astana were pulling," said directeur sportif Philippe Mauduit. "When Thibaut saw Julian jump at the top of the climb, he was on the wheel and then there is no way to wait anymore. The race was on."
So, too, is the race for the yellow jersey in Paris on July 28. Pinot was circumspect about his prospects but suggested that he felt better equipped to cope with external expectation than in years past. "There's pressure, obviously," Pinot said. "But the greatest pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself."