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A TOUR EDUCATION FOR PINOT & HIS PEERS

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With former Tour de France champions Alberto Contador and Chris Froome no longer in the race, and with champion-in-waiting Nairo Quintana recharging his batteries back home in Colombia after winning the Giro d’Italia, unexpected chances of glory have come to the riders still challenging race leader Vincenzo Nibali for the yellow jersey at this year’s 101st Tour.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

Barring an unfortunate accident or a sudden loss of form due to sickness, Nibali is assured of adding this Tour to his victories in the 2010 Vuelta a España and 2013 Giro. Those successes in the two lesser grand tours have given him the self-knowledge and tactical experience needed to win a demanding three-week race—though he did admit last week that he underestimated eventual winner Chris Horner when he was leading last year’s Vuelta.

Nibali won’t make that mistake again. He says he has the greatest respect for the three men still within (long-range) shooting distance of his yellow jersey: Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde (at 4:37), the budding French climber Thibaut Pinot (at 5:06) and former French mountain biker Jean-Christophe Péraud (at 6:08). At the same time, Tuesday’s marathon stage 16 into the Pyrénées—along with the prodigious climbing speed set by Valverde’s Movistar team and Pinot’s FDJ.FR teammates—ended the podium hopes of Péraud’s youthful AG2R teammate Romain Bardet (at 6:40) and BMC Racing’s crash-battered American Tejay van Garderen (at 9:25)

The French fans, after three decades of cheering for also-rans, can barely believe that, with five stages to go, two of their own riders are challenging for the Paris podium. And it’s possible that if Pinot and Péraud climb as strongly in the two remaining Pyrenean stages as they did in the Alps that one or both will achieve that goal—but just as important as their eventual finishing positions is the education Pinot, Péraud and Bardet are getting on how to contend at a grand tour.

It has been two decades since a Frenchman last won a grand Tour (Laurent Jalabert at the 1995 Vuelta) and three decades since Bernard Hinault was the last home winner of Le Tour. A big reason for the country’s lack of success, of course, were the shockwaves sent through French cycling by the Festina doping affair at the 1998 Tour.

Festina was a very French team. Its leader was French hero Richard Virenque—who had finished second at the previous year’s Tour—and its team manager was highly respected French coach Bruno Roussel. So when team soigneur Willy Voet was arrested transporting a wagon full of EPO and other banned drugs to the 1998 Tour, resulting in Festina’s expulsion from the race, the French nation was in shock.

That fact was confirmed last week by French television consultant and cycling author Jean-Paul Ollivier, who said, “The eviction of Virenque and Roussel, all that nearly killed me.” And while the use of EPO continued nonstop in other countries through the 2000s, the French authorities clamped down on doping, resulting in the French media coining the phrase cyclisme à deux vitesse (“cycling at two speeds”) to describe the disparity in performances of riders on French teams and those from other countries. Commenting on the “lost” years, French national team coach Bernard Bourreau, who worked with Bardet and Pinot when they were juniors, said, “I feel for a generation of sacrificed riders. They weren’t worse than today’s riders, but they raced at the worst time in a bad era.”

Péraud, 37, is theoretically from that generation but he didn’t become a road professional until 2010—after a mountain bike career that included a cross-country silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. Even so, he finished ninth in the 2011 Tour and was lying ninth last year when he crashed out in spectacular fashion on the mountain time trial in the Alps. This year, he started the race as co-leader with Bardet at AG2R La Mondiale.

Bardet was the better of the two teammates on the opening climbing stages in the Vosges and Alps, and the French media were quick to make him their “chosen one.” But Bardet, 14 years younger than Péraud, was quick to point out: “Don’t forget that I’m only 23, that this is my second Tour, and only my first as a leader. They’re putting me on a pedestal a little too fast.”

The tide began to turn for Péraud on the second day in the Alps last Saturday, the stage that went over the Tour’s highest mountain pass, the Col d’Izoard, and finished uphill at the Risoul ski resort. On the long, fast, technical descent of the Izoard, Péraud used his off-road bike-handling skills to gap the other favorites with teammate Bardet on his wheel. That was the move that caught out van Garderen, who had to call on his BMC teammates to close a 45-second gap before the leaders reached the final climb.

Then on the ascent to Risoul, when Nibali made a similar acceleration to the one that won him the stage to Chamrousse 24 hours earlier, only Péraud had the knowhow and strength to latch on to the flying Italian. He wasn’t looking around to see if Bardet or the other contenders were chasing. Analyzing the situation after the finish, a low-key Péraud told the French press: “I didn’t see what my rivals were doing…I was focused on Nibali’s back wheel.” When asked if he would sacrifice his own chances to help Bardet in this week’s Pyrenean stages, he replied, “Hmm, I know nothing, it’s the team directors who make the decisions.”

That tactical question became moot on Tuesday’s stage 16 on the above-category Port de Balès climb before the downhill finish into Luchon. When Valverde’s men splintered the group with a pace that van Garderen called “insane” and Pinot’s teammate Arnold Jeannesson joined in their acceleration, first van Garderen and then Bardet fell back. Both riders said they felt empty on the climb—perhaps because of hunger knock on this longest stage of the Tour, raced at a fierce 38.8 kilometers-per-hour average.

Tellingly, Bardet said, “I felt great at the foot of the climb and then I had a sudden weak spot…I have to learn how to deal with those weak moments. Mentally, it was very hard.” Both Bardet and van Garderen were helped by teammates to limit their losses, and both said they hope to bounce back on the last two Pyrenean stages—which have mountaintop finishes at Pla d’Adet (Wednesday) and Hautacam (Thursday).

On Tuesday, on the latter slopes of the Balès climb, it was 24-year-old Pinot who was the strongest, crossing the summit a few bike lengths ahead of Nibali, while Péraud was next, clearly suffering, followed by a tenacious Valverde. After the finish in Luchon, Pinot said, “I had my best legs of the Tour and I wanted to profit from that. My goal was to take the white jersey [as best young rider] and gain some time on Valverde and Bardet.” Mission accomplished.

Pinot’s FDJ team showed as great a maturity as Pinot on this stage. Jeannesson, 28, a talented climber, said he’d be reserving himself all Tour for these stages in the Pyrénées, while teammate Jérémy Roy, who was in the day’s big breakaway, said he waited for a few minutes at the side of the road on the Balès descent to pace Pinot (who had Nibali on his wheel) to the line. Though Péraud, Valverde and NetApp’s Leopold König caught them before the finish, those riders won’t have the luxury of a downhill finish on Wednesday and Thursday.

Regarding stage 17, Pinot said it is “perhaps the hardest in the whole Tour” because it features four of the toughest Pyrenean climbs in the last 80 kilometers. The finish climb from the village of St. Lary up to the Pla d’Adet ski station is “only” 10.2 kilometers long, but the first 4 kilometers average 10 percent, and should Pinot still have Jeannesson helping him, he could likely get rid of not only van Garderen, Bardet, Valverde and Péraud, but also have a shot at handing Nibali an unfamiliar defeat.

With no Contador or Froome or Quintana to worry about, Pinot, riding only his third Tour, already has the look and feel of a veteran who could win the race one day. Not this year, but with the skills and tactics he’s learning as a true contender—as are Bardet and van Garderen—Thibaut Pinot has the wherewithal to become the Tour’s first French winner since Bernard Hinault.