By Jonny Long
"Since 2014, people keep telling it’s now or never for the French, so yes, I'm getting used to that. The difference is if it’s not this year [that he wins], they will repeat it next year.
"But it’s true, the most negative pressure is the pressure I put on myself, how I handle pressure, I have more experience now. I can now walk away from this type of pressure. Now, I feel serenity."
How do you solve a problem like Thibaut Pinot?
The French climber bends the laws of physics, ascending mountains at the pace he does while carrying the hopes of an entire nation on his back. At times, it's glorious, counting victories atop Alpe d'Huez and the Col du Tourmalet on his palmarès. Yet the top prize still alludes him.
The speculation continues to revolve around whether the 30-year-old has the mental toughness to match the strength in his legs. Just how much last year's sudden abandonment due to a torn quadricep muscle was a physical ailment is still pondered upon.
Pinot climbed off in tears before the climb where he was supposed to launch his assault on the yellow jersey in 2019, instead getting into the back of his team car as Egan Bernal took the race lead - in part thanks to a landslide.
"Compared to last year I feel stronger, under less pressure," Pinot estimates. "I am quite detached from pressure so let’s not waste energy for nothing.
"I feel serene and I am motivated. What happened last year won’t repeat itself. It has made me stronger, in a way. I feel confident and I am stronger this year, I promise."
While the likes of Egan Bernal (Ineos) and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) have faced bumps in the preparatory road to Nice, Pinot's has been smooth sailing and he feels 100 per cent. However, he refuses to sign up for a 'win at all costs' mentality, saying he hopes only for the podium, whatever the step he stands on.
"The objective is the same as last year, to do my best," Pinot says, trying to manage expectations. "My best is the podium, top three or better. I had a good preparation, I was okay at La Route d'Occitanie, the Dauphiné, and now im 100 per cent at the start of the Tour de France. No physical issues, no health concerns. I've had a good level for the past three weeks, which I think will take me to the best position on GC."
"Is there a smile behind your face mask?" asks one French journalist, like an executioner asking if the noose fits comfortably.
"Yes I’m smiling, because I'm at the start of the Tour. I'm happy to be here with the team. The hardest part for me is I'm wearing a mask most of the time. It’s annoying, but when you're riding the bike you forget about it."
The omnipresent masks are a continual reminder that it would be somewhat of a miracle if this year's race reaches Paris, and that if he is going to win he hopes it's because he's the best rider and not because positive tests - or non-negatives as has become the preferred term - force the abandon of a rival.
"I dont think about that at all, I stay focused on the race," Pinot says of the chance the peloton doesn't arrive on the Champs-Élysées. "For me, it’s hard to imagine any team will leave the race, I hope none do, I hope the result in Paris reflects the sporting reality."
Standing in his way, aside from a mountainous parcours well-suited to the Frenchman, are Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, who Pinot says are the only two teams stronger than his Groupama-FDJ outfit.
"We are not afraid of other teams. I think Jumbo-Visma and Ineos will have the pressure of organising the race, starting tomorrow actually.
"I think they'll lock up the race, like at the Dauphiné, where they followed the strategy I thought they would. I imagine it will be a well-managed race by them but lots can happen over three weeks."
The first real challenge will happen in week one, though, with a battle at altitude on stage four, when the race heads up to Orcières-Merlett for the first time since 1989, which was previously the setting when Luis Ocaña put nine minutes into Eddy Merckx in 1971.
"It's an important stage, of course, I could wear the yellow jersey that evening," Pinot admits. "Many people would like to win that stage, I will have to be present on Sunday [which features two category one climbs], as well as Tuesday [stage four].
"The one who wins there will certainly wear the yellow jersey so I certainly would like to win it."
The "present", as he calls it, of the yellow jersey is a box currently left unticked, and the team's plan is for it to remain off Pinot's shoulders until the third week, with Groupama-FDJ wanting to let Jumbo-Visma and Ineos burn matches as they control the race over the opening fortnight before pouncing in the final days.
"It’s not the way I race," Pinot counters to his dreams of yellow on stage four. "We want to be there in the third week. We don't have an army like Ineos or Jumbo-Visma, that’s their role.
"But in the third week we will do our thing and attack. In the first week it will be tough, they will try and crush the competition in week one."
If Pinot can resist the strength of the powerhouse teams, as well as the pressure from both himself and the public, the yellow jersey has a very good chance of finally being back in French hands when the peloton (hopefully) arrives on Parisian cobbles later this month.
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