Tour de France 2014: Blistering climb by Thibaut Pinot gives the leaders a scare

Australian Mick Rogers wins the longest stage, while Vincenzo Nibali remains in yellow as race enters the Pyrenees

The Tour de France took an intriguing and unexpected turn today as a blistering ride by France’s Thibaut Pinot on the stage’s final climb of the Port de Balès saw the 24-year-old both move on to the provisional podium and, albeit very briefly, accelerate away from leader Vincenzo Nibali and second-placed Alejandro Valverde.

There were gasps of surprise as with around 500 metres of climbing left to go, a long surge for the summit by Pinot sent Valverde weaving across the road. Then, when even Nibali seemed unable to follow the FDJ.fr rider’s all-out charge – as the two approached the banner at the top of the 11km ascent – the collective reaction of onlookers was one of stunned silence.

Both Nibali – whose domination of the Tour’s lead has been taken for granted for over a week now – and Valverde were able to regain contact with Pinot on the long, twisting descent to the finish at Bagnères-de-Luchon. And both the Italian and Spaniard denied after the stage, won by lone breakaway Mick Rogers of Australia, that they were in any difficulty on the summit.

“I imagined that Pinot was attacking to get a bit of a margin before the downhill,” Valverde claimed afterwards, an indirect reference to Pinot’s reputed fear of descending. “I was getting some energy gels from my back pocket,” Nibali insisted. “It wasn’t that I got dropped.”

Perhaps. But either way Pinot’s marked improvement in climbing form since the Alps three days ago makes it clear that the Frenchman is more than happy to try to rip up the script – and that Nibali and Valverde will not go unchallenged en route to the Italian’s probable victory – and the Spaniard’s possible second place in Paris.

In any case, ousting Valverde from second – increasingly likely – and toppling Nibali – extremely unlikely – are battles which Pinot has yet to face. But his initial attack halfway up the Port de Balès has already enabled him to elbow another promising young Frenchman, 23-year-old Romain Bardet, out of third and out of the lead of the Best Young Rider’s classification, gaining nearly two minutes on his compatriot.

“My big objective was to gain time on Bardet,” Pinot said afterwards, “and on [Tejay] Van Garderen” – his American rival, previously fifth overall, who lost over four minutes after cracking badly on the Port de Balès.

“Seeing that I could drop Valverde, too, at the same time is a huge boost to my morale. We’ll see what happens [tomorrow]. I’ll keep on trying.”

In some ways it is appropriate Pinot, rather than Bardet, has taken over the French resurgence in cycling, which will now – barring total disaster – see the host nation net their first top-three Tour de France finish in 17 years.

For Australia’s Rogers, over a decade older than Pinot, the win was also a breakthrough – but in the former triple World Time Trial Champion’s case, the battle was more internal.

Finally cleared in April for testing positive for the banned anabolic steroid clenbuterol after a five-month provisional suspension, Rogers said his  racing mentality had changed.

“I stopped trying to calculate so much. I started thinking that the worst thing that can happen if you just go for it, is that you lose. I stopped trying to live someone else’s life,” an emotional Rogers said.

He recognised, too, that an opportunity to shine on his own account had arisen purely because team-mate and leader Alberto Contador was no longer inthe race.

“I’m more hungry now. The opportunities seem clearer now. Previously I was scared to try something because I was afraid of failure.”

Defending World Champion Rui Costa, a pre-race favourite, has quit with severe bronchitis. Down in 13th place, the Portuguese said: “I feel like I’ve been run over by a lorry.”cisive to prevent Voeckler from extending his unbeaten run at Bagneres-de-Luchon.

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