By Samuel Petrequin
AP Sports Writer
LAC DE PAYOLLE, France — Dribbling in pain on the punishing climb of the Col d’Aspin, Thibaut Pinot saw his hopes of winning the Tour de France disappear.
While his rivals in the fight for the yellow jersey came out unscathed from the first big ascent of this year’s race on Friday, France’s top hope crossed the finish line nearly seven minutes after stage winner Steve Cummings, losing just over three minutes to the group that included defending champion Chris Froome.
The sight of Pinot struggling during the 12-kilometer ascent of the legendary Pyrenean path, spit and sweat flowing down his face, was a shock.
Pinot, a third-place finisher at the Tour two years ago, started the race with most French hopes on his shoulders. An excellent climber, Pinot improved in time trials heading into the race and was confident he would be able to fight toe to toe with Froome and Nairo Quintana for the overall win.
Having avoided losing time in the first third of the race, the 26-year-old FDJ team leader entered the Pyrenees with high morale. Less than 163 kilometers further down the route leading to the Champs Elysees, at the finish line on the shores of the Lac de Payolle, the Frenchman cut an ashen-faced figure.
“I had bad legs, it’s as simple as that,” said Pinot, whose struggles in the Category 1 ascent were in stark contrast to his scintillating form a year earlier on his way to a prestigious win on the slopes of the Alpe d’Huez.
“I don’t want to make excuses. It’s the third time in my career that I’ve blown up in the Pyrenees. I’m not 100 percent, and at the Tour you need to ride at 100 percent. Obviously it’s a waste, my whole season is almost dust. The Tour was my main goal and after the first mountain stage, this goal is already dead.”
Pinot’s struggles even surprised his FDJ teammates, who set the tempo at the start of the ascent.
“They tried to put me in the best position at the foot of the climb,” said Pinot, who enjoyed a strong start to the season crowned by a time trial title at the French national championships last month. “After two kilometers, I understood I was not in top form. Let see how I fare tomorrow.”
With two more difficult stages in the Pyrenees this weekend, FDJ manager Marc Madiot said it is now crucial to find out quickly what exactly happened to his protege.
“He was even below his average level, obviously we expected more,” Madiot said. “We need to understand why he is not at his best level.”
Pinot brushed off suggestions that he prepared poorly for the race.
“We all wanted to peak at Mont Ventoux when the race will really start on July 14,” Pinot said. “But we are not machines. To hit peak form at the right time is easier to say than actually achieve.”
With Pinot, France had a good chance of producing a home champion for the first time since Bernard Hinault posted the final of his five wins back in 1985. Barring an improbable comeback, Pinot is now out of contention and the nation’s hopes hang on the fortunes of Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil, who have yet to lose time on the main favorites.