By Julien Pretot
NICE, France (Reuters) - Thibaud Pinot left 2019's Tour de France in tears after his hopes of victory were wrecked by injury with Paris in sight, but the Groupama FDJ rider is determined to make the most of a favourable route to become the first French winner in 35 years.
The 30-year-old burst into the limelight when he won a mountain stage on his Tour debut in 2012, two years before finishing third overall, raising hopes that France had finally found a successor to Bernard Hinault, whose 1985 win still weighs heavily on those trying to emulate him.
Since 2014, Pinot has only completed the Tour once, a disappointing 16th overall in 2015 although he claimed victory at the top of the iconic Alpe d'Huez that year.
Last year, he prevailed on the Col du Tourmalet and dropped all the favourites on a punishing climb the next day.
But his Tour jinx struck again, with a thigh injury forcing Pinot to abandon the race a couple of days before what might have been a victory parade on the Champs-Elysees.
"Last year was a huge disappointment but I will get over it. I've realised that I could aim extremely high," said Pinot earlier in the season.
"That was the worst disappointment of my career. I had the best form I've ever had in my career. To lose all of that in an instant was too much to bear."
Still, Pinot’s epic ride in 2019 boosted his popularity in France.
“If I go to the supermarket wearing Groupama FDJ gear, I always get stopped by an old lady asking me 'How's little Pinot doing?’,” said his sports director Philippe Mauduit.
While some cycling commentators say he can be mentally fragile when the heat is on, Pinot relishes his fights with the big guns.
And when he wins, he usually wins big, having triumphed in stages in all three grand tours and a 'Monument' classic, the Giro di Lombardia in 2018.
This year's mountain-laden route appears tailor-made for the pure climbers, with the only time trial being an uphill effort to La Planche des Belles Filles, on roads Pinot knows well from his training rides.
The 30-year-old geared up for the Tour with a solid showing at the Route d'Occitanie and his form continued to improve at the Criterium du Dauphine, where he looked poised to win but ultimately cracked under the pressure of repeated attacks.
"I'm disappointed, that's the main feeling," he said after the Dauphine, in which he finished second overall behind Colombia's Dani Martinez, another who will stand in the way of his ambition to wear the yellow jersey in Paris.
His legs, however, are good, he says.
If he is to succeed, Pinot will need his team mates at full gas, especially David Gaudu who has been struggling for fitness in the lead-up but who proved himself to be an invaluable asset in the mountains last year.
(This story has been refiled to add dropped attribution of quote in paragraph 9)
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Chopra)