Thibaut Pinot's rivalry with his contemporary Romain Bardet famously saw them both miss out on stage victory to Steve Cummings at Mende during the 2015 Tour de France, but the Groupama-FDJ man put personal ambition firmly to one side with a selfless display in the World Championships road race on Sunday.
Bardet took the silver medal behind Alejandro Valverde (Spain) after Pinot had worked prominently on behalf of him and preordained team leader Julian Alaphilippe on the final two laps of the demanding Innsbruck circuit.
Pinot was to the fore on the last ascent up the climb to Igls and was again at the head of the dwindling leading group on the approach to the vertiginous climb of Höll, where the winning move eventually took shape.
After Bardet went away with Valverde and Michael Woods (Canada), Pinot attempted to pace Alaphilippe back into contention, but the damage was already done. They reached the finish 43 seconds down on Valverde, and Pinot placed 9th, on the same time as a visibly disappointed Alaphilippe.
"I sacrificed myself," Pinot said in the mixed zone afterwards. "I swung off after doing my work, when there were only six riders left in front. There was no lull in front so we never got back on from behind. My goal was to make the race hard because the number one favourite was Julian."
After victories at the Tour of Britain and Tour of Slovakia in the weeks leading up to the Worlds, Alaphilippe was expected to shine on the tough parcours, but he lost contact with the leaders on the final ascent.
"He had cramps on the climb, so then we played the Bardet card," Pinot said. "My instructions were to move in the last two laps and to ride at the bottom of the last climb. That’s what I did. We’re obviously disappointed because we wanted the title, but we came across a stronger rider."
A winner of two stages at the Vuelta a España and a regular contender at Il Lombardia, Pinot might have been deployed as a team leader rather than as a deluxe équipier. The 28-year-old insisted he had no complaints about the role handed to him by Guimard, however, pointing out that Alaphilippe was the rider best-suited to the course.
"I had my role, I accepted it and I have no regrets," Pinot said. "It’s a pity but we showed that we were strong collectively, and that’s what we need to take away from this race. I stuck with my role and I didn’t hide. In the last two laps, I jumped on everything that moved. For me, Julian was stronger than me on paper on a course like that. It was normal to sacrifice myself for him."
Despite the rigours of the Innsbruck course, a sizeable peloton remained in contention come the final two laps. The severity of the climb to Höll perhaps discouraged attacks from distance, while the strongest teams all had a similar tactical outlook
"Everybody was betting on the finishing sprint of their leader and it’s a tactic that almost paid off for us. If Julian had been up there, he could have won," Pinot said. "When three riders in the top 10, we showed we were strong, although we were aiming to win."
France have not won an elite men’s world title since Laurent Brochard’s victory in San Sebastian in 1997. Bardet is only the third medallist in the intervening period, after Jean-Cyril Robin’s bronze medal in Verona in 1999 and Anthony Geslin’s bronze in Madrid six years later.
While Alaphilippe’s versatile talents make him a contender on just about every kind of Worlds course, Pinot confessed that he might have to wait a little longer for another opportunity to play a role in the finale. "We still have time [to win the Worlds] and I hope it might be in Switzerland in two years’ time," Pinot said.
Not that Pinot is without objectives in the immediate future. After placing third in 2015 and 5th a year ago, he will line out among the favourites for Il Lombardia on October 13.
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