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Stage eight analysis: home win on foreign soil

Thibaut Pinot took the first French stage win in this year’s Tour, while the favourites started to probe at Bradley Wiggins’ lead

Words by Richard Moore in Porrentruy

Sunday July 8, 2012

This was a stage that spelled danger. There were seven classified climbs, there were opportunists ready to strike, and there was a crucial time trial 24 hours later, which only further encouraged the opportunists.

An exciting stage was promised and duly delivered, from an early break with rather too many big names for the liking of Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins, in his first day in yellow, to a memorable victory for Thibaut Pinot.

Having recently turned 22, Pinot, who is local to the area, hailing from the French side of the border, has been one of the great hopes of French cycling. Now, after claiming the first French and the first solo victory of this year’s Tour in Porrentruy, he will feel the full weight of the nation’s expectation on his shoulders.

Then again, that will be as nothing compared to the full force of Marc Madiot’s ‘encouragement’ in the closing stages, which saw the FDJ director hanging out the window of the team car, pumping his fist and screaming. Had he not held on for the win then Pinot might have been well advised to nip straight back across the border to the sanctuary of home.

Madiot was not the only one overcome by it all. In fact, Pinot was perhaps the single member of his team who held it together. While being interviewed by French TV he was ambushed by Arthur Vichot, another of the team’s promising young riders, who threw his arms around his friend and hugged him so tight that Pinot had to stand up to avoid asphyxiation. Vichot is also from the area and he and Pinot have risen through the ranks together.

It was an emotional moment, clearly, and all the more meaningful for that. One only hopes that it represents a foothill in Pinot’s career rather than a high point. Indeed, Christian Prudhomme pointed out to Cycle Sport after the finish line that the two youngest riders in the Tour, Pinot and Peter Sagan, have won half the stages between them so far.

Behind Pinot, there was a fascinating tussle between the overall contenders, particularly on the final descent, in the final 15km, where Vincenzo Nibali lived up to his promise to make Wiggins’ life difficult, and then Cadel Evans tried a cheeky little attack in the final two kilometres. It augurs well for the next two weeks.

Before then, the difficulty and complexity of a short and hilly rather than mountainous stage made it chaotic, interesting and predictably unpredictable. At the start in Belfort, Dave Brailsford, Sky’s team principal, was alert to the potential dangers, noting that taking the yellow jersey so early in the Tour was “like scoring a goal in the first five minutes of a football match. The most dangerous thing after doing that is going to sleep when the game kicks off again.”

They hauled in the first break, which included Philippe Gilbert, Sylvain Chavanel and David Millar, but let a second 24-man group, including Pinot, build a lead of around three minutes. They were managing the situation, though in the end they were helped by Nibali’s Liquigas team. But not on Nibali’s behalf. With Peter Sagan still in the main group, the Italian team gambled on their young Slovakian, who is in the green jersey, surviving the final, and toughest climb, of the day, the Col de la Croix.

The gamble backfired. Sagan was dropped. But Nibali still fancied his chances. Indeed, on a day in which another contender, Samuel Sanchez, was eliminated after a crash, with the Olympic champion departing with a suspected broken collarbone, this was a stage that arguably produced more talking points than the previous day’s, which had fallen so decisively for Wiggins and Sky.

Did Sky do too much, too early on this stage? On the final climb there was no sign of Michael Rogers and Richie Porte, who contributed so much on Saturday. Wiggins, with only Chris Froome, seemed a little isolated. It was Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who had punctured the previous day, who lit the touchpaper on the climb, with Nibali, Evans, Wiggins and Froome following. This group of five became detached from the rest, though they had re-formed by the summit. Nevertheless, it suggested that Saturday might not have been as conclusive as suspected, and that Wiggins’ prediction of a three-horse race between him, Nibali and Evans was possibly a little premature.

Wiggins was able to respond to Nibali, and also Evans when he tried his attack in the closing, flat kilometres – and into a headwind. It was a bold move by Evans, as were Van Den Broeck’s jabs on the climb and Nibali’s efforts on the descent. They suggested that, even if Wiggins and Sky are the strongest in the race, the others might not be quite ready to accept that yet.

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