CHAMROUSSE France (Reuters) - Early in the final ascent, Thibaut Pinot narrowed his eyes and circled around the yellow jersey group, as if weighing up the form of his rivals.
Then he upped the pace, demonstrating he would be a force to be reckoned with in the stage - and later, too, after showing guts and class on the bike in the first Alpine stage of the Tour de France.
The 24-year-old Frenchman of the FDJ.fr team was, with seasoned grand tour rider Alejandro Valverde, the only man capable of responding to Vincenzo Nibali’s early attack in the 18.2 km ascent to Chamrousse.
Nibali won the 13th stage to strengthen his lead in the overall standings while Pinot moved up to fourth with still four mountain stages left to show his skills.
“I wanted to make it hard for the others,” Pinot told reporters about his early burst.
“He rode the final climb nicely, he had the legs to do it, he attacked far from the summit,” said his team manager Marc Madiot.
“Maybe he attacked from too far out but if everybody keeps waiting, nothing happens.”
Pinot’s attitude was a far cry from last year, when he pulled out with a throat infection after he had dropped out of contention by losing ground in a speedy downhill.
“It is not a revenge, it’s just that he had a tough Tour last year,” said Madiot.
“Then he recovered well to ride a good Vuelta.”
Pinot took seventh place in the Vuelta last year, further strengthening his credentials as a grand tour rider one year after taking 10th place overall in his maiden Tour de France.
Long mocked for their defeatism in years when cycling was crippled with doping, the French now have two riders in the top four as AG2R-La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet moved up to third overall despite losing 30 seconds to Pinot.
No French rider has climbed on the podium in Paris since Richard Virenque finished second overall in 1997.
Top spot should be a step too high for Pinot, who will contest the white jersey for the best Under-25 rider with Bardet, who enjoys a 16-second advantage.
Pinot, however, fares better in the solo effort against the clock and the penultimate stage is a 54-km individual time trial.
“We’re not disappointed that he did not take the jersey today, because it allows him more recuperation as he is not bothered by protocol,” said Madiot.
“It’s best to have it in Paris.”
Bardet, who was 15th overall in his first Tour last year, could not follow Pinot’s pace but with the help of American Tejay van Garderen, limited the damage as the duo rode themselves into the ground on slopes reaching a gradient of 11 percent.
Madiot, however, declined to speculate about Pinot’s final standing.
“Nibali is a cut above, then there are a few riders who can ride for a podium finish. Every day someone is eliminated,” he said.
“Let’s not forget Van Garderen. Today Porte was thrown out so that’s one less for the top 10. Let’s see who goes next, hoping it’s not us.”
Pinot clearly aims a bit higher.
“It’s good news that Porte was dropped because he was superior in time trials,” he said.
“But Van Garderen and (France‘s) Jean-Christophe Peraud are not too far back and they’re good in time trials.”
Asked whether he was still in the mix to win the Tour this year, Pinot said: ”I‘m among the contenders for a top five or podium finish.
“For the overall win, it would take a very very bad day for Nibali. For the moment it’s Nibali and the others.”
Nibali leads Valverde by 3:37, Bardet by 4:24 and Pinot by 4:40.
Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Pritha Sarkar