Before the Tour de France Thibaut Pinot had to fight hard on the tough climbs on the Tour of Switzerland to convince FDJ team manager Marc Madiot he was worthy of a place on the team. After Sunday's eighth stage, Madiot - the former Paris-Roubaix champion whose no-nonsense approach is coupled with an almost father-like protection of his riders - did not regret putting the climber in his nine-man squad.
Pinot, at 22 years old the youngest of the race's 198 starters, started the 157.5 km stage in the hilly Swiss Jura with instructions not to go on the attack. But a day after his promising 15th place finish on the steep ramps of La Planche des Filles in his native Vosges, the climbing specialist had other ideas.
"I was told not to go on the attack, to stay with the leaders," said Pinot. "But I marked this stage down a long time ago. And, the race was blowing up all over the place. It was a war."
FDJ, whose success across a season often is determined by how successful they are on the Tour, had sent Jeremy Roy on the attack early in the stage. His efforts over several tough climbs that had most of the peloton struggling to keep pace meant his teammates were not obliged to contribute to the chase. A tiring Roy was soon reeled in and a new attack was launched which left Sweden's Fredrik Kessakioff leading the stage and apparently soloing to victory. But Pinot had other ides.
"Kessiakoff held a lead of 1min 45sec before the penultimate climb, so I knew I had to attack," added the Frenchman. "At the start of the final climb he still had 50 seconds, but I still had fuel in the tank."
Pinot took up the chase with compatriot Tony Gallopin, before leaving the RadioShack rider in his wake and going on to reel in Kessiakoff moments before the summit of the 3.7 km-long Col de la Croix. From there, it was a 16 km race to a victory that was still far from guaranteed.
A select group of yellow jersey favorites including race leader Bradley Wiggins and defending champion Cadel Evans had been fighting their own, separate battle which raged from the final summit to the finish. As they tried to shake Wiggins on the descent, Pinot's lead came under threat as he fought a strong headwind for the final 10 km. But pushed on by the thousands of roadside fans - as well as a screaming Madiot sitting in the FDJ team car - the Frenchman eventually held on to solo over the finish in triumph, but only 26sec ahead of Evans.
"I couldn't feel my legs at the finish, I was shaking all over," said Pinot. "I just did the longest 10km of my life, I'll never forget it. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could win a stage on the race this year."
Pinot, however, was quick to share the glory. "When Jeremy (Roy) was caught, he sacrificed himself for me. This victory also belongs to him."