In yesterdays stage 16 up the Port de Balès and down into Bagnères-de-Luchon, we were focused on two riders, one going backward, one going forward.
That would be American Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
In a strong podium position, van Garderen was in control of his destiny when the stage began. Clearly a better time trialist than at least two of the three French riders fighting for third place in Paris, all he had to do was stick with Thibaut, Bardet and Péraud.
Good news for van Garderen — the young kid Bardet, still only 23 years old, went out the back. Bad news: so did van Garderen.
On a personal note, it was painful to watch. Painful as watching a battered Froome exit the tour with injures on stage five and almost as painful as watching Contador climb into the Tinkoff-Saxo team car, tears running down his face and blood dripping down his leg.
Poor Tejay has the post-rest day blues, un jour sans podium. With his teammates pacing him, he still lost over three minutes. Unless he pulls back a good chunk of time on the French kids today and tomorrow, the last two days in the Pyrenees, his chances of a podium are history.
That would be a staggering blow and the kind of missed opportunity that might not come again for years. With Froome and Contador out of the race and Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana of Movistar skipping Le Grand Shindig, the podium was wide open.
Meanwhile, Thibaut Pinto went all carpe diem and seized that spectacular opportunity. Everyone acknowledges the guy can climb with the best when he’s on form but we’d written him off as a serious Tour contender — forever — because of his fear of high speed descents. He was worse than Andy Schleck in that regard.
First, you have to respect the efforts he put in during the off-season to conquer those fears and rebuild his confidence on winding, high speed descents. We saw he’d made a full recovery when he bombed the backside of the Port de Balès even dropping brilliant descender Vincenzo Nibali for a few moments. Chapeau Thibaut.
On the climb up, Pinot was just as focused and aggressive and so was his Francaise des Jeux squad. In recent Tours, we’ve often had the impression that the French squads only strategy was to throw as many riders in as many breaks as possible, then pray for an outcome. Those were scattershot and desperate moves.
This year Pinot’s FDJ team rides with a mapped out strategy for each day and they actually follow the script. Same goes for AG2R, who lead the team competition and, until yesterday, had two riders in Bardet and Péraud with podium hopes. That’s impressive.
Pinot didn’t sit back, hoping other riders in front of him would fold and hand him the gift basket with the champagne. He took the initiative, attacked the race and would have made a rider like Alberto Contador proud. Second chapeau for Pinot.
We hold out irrational hope that van Garderen can rebound today and tomorrow in the mountains and pull out a performance that puts him back in the hunt. After four or five crashes and many up and down days, he’s proved to be mentally tough.
We’re not counting him out just yet. It’s been a crazy Tour and nobody is a lock for that third spot.