Blazin' Saddles

French toasts as vintage Pinot is uncorked

Blazin' Saddles

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Glasses were raised all over France as a new national hero came of age on stage eight of the Tour just across the border in the pretty Swiss town of Porrentruy.

Last year it took until stage 19 and Pierre Rolland's mesmeric ascent of Alpe d'Huez before France could breath a sigh of relief. This year, thanks to the youngest rider on the Tour, celebrations even came a whole week before Bastille Day as local boy Thibaut Pinot took the spoils after another thrilling day in the 'medium mountains'.

With Richard Virenque having retired and both Thomas Voeckler and Sylvain Chavanel getting on (plus both happily married), French housewives were in desperate need of some fresh meat.

Pinot fits the bill parfaitement: better looking than all three, the 22-year-old chouchou has chiselled cheekbones and eyebrows to die for; most importantly, he looks to have the class to replicate his debut Tour success over many years to come.

Pinot Gloire

A day which started with Grandpa Voigt going on the attack ended with a rider young enough to be the oldest of Jens' six children holding off the charge of the GC favourites to take the win and almost give his boss a heart-attack (more on that later).

In an ideal world, Pinot would have made his mark on Saturday's stage, which passed by his hometown of Mélisey (where his father is mayor). With the roadsides dotted with banners of support, the local boy rose to the occasion with a strong top 15 finish.

On Sunday, Pinot wasn't the plan for FDJ-BigMat, who sent battler Jeremy Roy (the 2011 Tour's most aggressive rider) up the road in the initial break. But Pinot, riding over roads he knows like the back of his now-famous hand, decided he had the legs and took advantage of an open race to ride off in pursuit of lone leader, the immensely likeable Swede Fredrik Kessiakoff.

The way Pinot caught and passed the Astana former mountain biker near the summit of the Col de la Croix sent a tingle down the spine — as did the moment, 15km later, when he realised the win was his. (Add to that the touching scene of his post-race hug with team-mate Arthur Vichot, himself clearly crying in joy, and it was almost as emotional as a defeated Scot's runners-up speech on the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Pinot Blanc?

Following his win and a consistent opening nine days in the Tour, Pinot is now in third place in the race for the white jersey, trailing seasoned Grand Tour youngster Rein Taaramae of Cofidis by one minute and fourteen seconds. He's also up to 13th in the GC — that's seven places higher than last year's maillot blanc, Rolland.

Can Pinot harbour ambitions of climbing the podium in Paris as the race's best young rider? Certainly — although the Estonian Taaramae will be tough to beat. Riding his third Tour, Taaramae has been strong in the mountains — and says his time trialling is even better. Things will be clearer come Monday evening.

Regardless of his final GC placing, Pinot's debut Tour can now only be seen as an almighty success. Not many people can claim to have beaten Peter Sagan at something — but at least Pinot can say he won a Tour stage earlier in his career than the Slovak Sensation™. Currently on one mountain-top wheelie and three debut stage wins and counting, green jersey Sagan is a full four months older than France's newest hero.

With riders like Pinot and Sagan around, cycling's future is pretty sound. And if Pinot fares well in the Tour's two long ITTs, then (say it quietly) perhaps France's wait for a veritable GC contender will be over.

Madiot: sommelier of success

But who was that mad man shouting at Pinot through the window of his team car? None other than FDJ-BigMat team manager Marc Madiot — and you can understand his excitement. Last year, FDJ were in breaks virtually every stage of the race — but each day found themselves thwarted, sometime cruelly so.

Madiot, two-time Paris-Roubaix winner in his time, would have left the 2011 Tour deflated and demoralised after seeing his all-attacking team fail to pick up a win (Sandy Casar struck once in both previous Tours).

One of few team managers in favour of a radio ban, Madiot's own performance on Sunday definitely lived up to his principles. The bespectacled silver fox leant far out of his window as he urged on his rider with an array of encouraging shouts and animated gesticulations.

"Allez! Jusqu'au bout!" soon gave away to "Ouais! Tu vas gagner!" as Pinot passed the flamme rouge with a 30-second advantage. Madiot's fist pumping, smiles and hugs within the team car were really quite touching to watch.

The happy scenes reminded Saddles of a stage on the 2005 Tour de France when Madiot (then not so grey or jowly) was behind the wheel of the FDJ team car for the closing moments of a rain-soaked ride to Nancy.

In place of a 22-year-old Tour tyro, Madiot was urging on 36-year-old grizzled veteran Christophe Mengin, still in search of his first major win as a pro as he rode solo into his home town after leading the stage for 170km.

"Go Totophe!" Madiot screamed (admittedly via race radio) into his rider's earpiece as an exhausted Mengin defied the odds, the peloton hot on his heels. "Think of your wife and your little girls! Do it for your family! You're at home here!"

It was rousing stuff for the viewers of French TV's 'Vélo Club', who happened to have send a cameraman to follow FDJ from inside their team car for the day.

This, of course, made what came next all the more heartbreaking. Entering the last corner in his home town, Mengin slipped in a puddle and went cascading into the barriers, breaking an eye-socket as the peloton then swept by to contest what should have been his win.

"I was so close to victory: one kilometre, one last turn..." said a tearful Mengin after he had crossed the line, temporarily blind in one eye, the side of his face red, raw and swollen. (He would retire a few seasons later without ever winning a stage on the Tour).

There was no fist pumping or joyous celebrations while dangling half out of the window for Madiot back then. The silence that pervaded the team car after the initial shock was painful to watch.

Interviewed on national TV afterwards, Madiot became inconsolable with sorrow. "This doesn't happen to me often," he mumbled, apologising for his tears. "I have never got so emotional about a rider before, but I feel completely destroyed inside because Christophe did not deserve that. I can't take anymore, I'm sorry," he added, before sinking into complete on-air breakdown.

"C'est énorme. Énorme," came the harrowing voice-over of the captivating passage. And "énorme" is exactly the same word the French would use to describe Pinot's performance on Sunday — and thankfully for Madiot, for the right reasons.

Saturday's stage six ended with Champagne for Pinot — but in the larger picture of cycling, it probably represented a form of closure for Madiot seven years after one of the biggest disappointments of his management career.

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