By Julien Pretot
ST ETIENNE, France (Reuters) – The prospect of a home-grown rider winning the Tour de France for the first time in more than three decades started to take shape on Saturday when Thibaut Pinot ended the first block as the best of the overall contenders.
The 29-year-old, third in 2014, has matured into a world-class rider since winning the Giro Di Lombardia, one of five ‘Monument’ classics, last October and his aggressive yet relaxed approach to the Tour is paying off.
Pinot moved ahead of defending champion Geraint Thomas and the other top guns after being the only rider able to follow Julian Alaphilippe’s brutal attack on the last ascent of a 200-km ride from Macon.
He gained 28 seconds, including eight bonus seconds, over his GC rivals to move up to third overall, 53 seconds behind compatriot Alaphilippe who reclaimed the yellow jersey after finishing third behind Pinot and stage winner Thomas De Gendt.
Pinot leads the two pre-race favorites Thomas and his Ineos team mate Egan Bernal by 19 and 23 seconds respectively.
The last Frenchman to win the Tour was Bernard Hinault in 1985 and never since the end of the 1980s has a local rider emerged as a more credible potential winner than Pinot this year.
“There is pressure obviously but the biggest pressure is the one I put on myself,” said Pinot, who abandoned the race in 2016 and 2017 and did not take part last year after failing to fully recover from a bout of pneumonia sustained near the end of the Giro d’Italia.
“I also don’t want to disappoint my team mates who are all working for me.”
Pinot, who has a love-hate relationship with the Tour having won a stage as the youngest rider in the race in 2012 but also experienced his most humiliating disappointments here, is happy to be taking part this year.
“Last year I watched it on TV and it was not fun at all. I realized how important this race is for a French rider,” he said.
The 2019 race has been well planned by his Groupama-FDJ team, who decided on their eight riders to take part as early as last December
It allowed them to fine-tune their team trialing and they got their reward in the second stage when they lost only 12 seconds to Team Ineos.
“We’re more respected in the peloton. We’re doing our job on the flat, we’re there in the mountains and today we’re exactly where we want to be,” said Pinot, who changed his race schedule to peak for the Tour.
“It was frustrating to skip April and races like the Tour of the Basque Country but I knew it would pay off.
“I arrived on the Tour determined to do everything I could and we’ll see how it goes.”
Pinot is now likely to head into the first high mountain stage with huge hopes of donning the yellow jersey in Bagneres de Bigorre next Thursday.
“My career goal was to win the Lombardia and stages on all three grands tours. Since I’ve done that I’m more relaxed,” he said.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Clare Fallon)