UTRECHT (Netherlands) • Often cited by defending champion Vincenzo Nibali as a rider to watch on cycling's Tour de France, Thibaut Pinot made an early impact by beating all the pre-race favourites in the opening time trial on Saturday.
The French climber, who has dramatically improved with his efforts against the clock in recent years, finished the 13.8-km course in 18th place, 41 seconds behind stage winner Rohan Dennis of Australia, who clocked 14min 56sec.
"It was a clean performance on a good course, not too tortuous. What is important is to be reassured. I was eager to start. It's a good start, it's a plus," Pinot said after the race, as France awaits its first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
"Some say I'm not good on time trials but, when I have good legs, I know I can do well."
His meteoric rise from a promising junior to a Tour de France podium place in seven years has been phenomenal.
Afterall, this is the rider who, just three years ago, was left rooted on the spot in the middle of a race as his rivals sped away, struck by a fear of descents caused by a serious crash he suffered years ago.
Now, Pinot has worked hard to conquer his fears and has shown his recent form with victory on the queen stage of the Tour de Suisse last month.
The win put him into the race lead but a poor time trial saw him slip off the podium to fourth. Like many of his compatriots, Pinot is not a strong time triallist, making this year's Tour de France an almost perfect route for his shot at the yellow jersey.
He will get the full support of his team FDJ, who have made no secret that they are backing their leader at all costs as he attempts to repeat or improve on last year's third-place Tour finish.
During the French outfit's pre-race news conference last week, FDJ manager Marc Madiot repeatedly underlined his team's focus on Pinot, emphasising that sprinter Arnaud Demare will only be allowed opportunities in bunch finishes if Pinot's interests are already secure.
"The team will focus primarily on Pinot and only if there are opportunities in sprints will some of the guys get behind Demare," Madiot said of his team's tactics. "He has nothing more to fear now."
TOUR DE FRANCE
Stage 3: StarHub Ch212, 7.15pm