The first mountain stage of the Tour de France is always a test, but the examination felt particularly thorough for Thibaut Pinot at La Planche des Belles Filles on Thursday. The heat – literal and figurative – of a French July has at times proved unbearable for the Groupama-FDJ leader over the years, and the burden of expectation could scarcely have been heavier as he raced on his own training roads on stage 6.
“Hero’s welcome awaits Thibaut Pinot at La Planche des Belles Filles,” read the headline in Thursday’s L’Est Republicain, the newspaper that serves the rider’s native region of Franche-Comté. “Thibaut – La Planche is for you!” read the vast banner at the base of the final ascent. On the final, 24 per cent ramps towards the line, the asphalt had been repeatedly daubed with the same two syllables: “Pinot.”
Despite that outpouring of affection, Pinot set out from Mulhouse mindful that he would be judged squarely by whether his name appeared at the top end of the results sheet. The timekeepers don’t keep a tally of claps and cheers, but Pinot they were a useful guide to the Frenchman’s progress up the final climb all the same.
Three kilometres from home, when teammate David Gaudu moved to the front of the reduced yellow jersey group with Pinot on his wheel, the fans watching on the screen at the flamme rouge began banging excitedly on the advertising hoardings, as though sending news of the local boy’s form by induction up the mountainside.
When the yellow jersey group fragmented under Geraint Thomas’ forcing in the wickedly steep final kilometre, the roadside crowds seemed to be almost willing Pinot back up to his wheel. He didn’t quite make it, but he limited his losses better than any of the other podium contenders, crossing the line two seconds behind the Welshman and in fifth place on the stage. In the overall standings, Pinot lies in seventh, 58 seconds behind new maillot jaune Giulio Ciccone and nine seconds down on Thomas.
“I’m satisfied,” Pinot said as he waited to make the 7km descent to his team bus in the valley below. “I was a bit worried I wouldn’t respond present when everybody was expecting something from me. The team did a great job. We didn’t win the stage, but the Tour is still long, and I couldn’t lose sight of my objective and get overly excited because it was La Planche.”
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