On stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana this Thursday, Thibaut Pinot once again tried everything. However, the French climber was unable to conclude his great day up front with the victory that he and Groupama-FDJ have been so looking for. After making it to a reduced group from the initial breakaway, he was caught by the favourites less than three kilometers from the summit of the Alto del Piornal. He still hung on to take a very solid sixth place on the line. Along with him in the first breakaway, Rudy Molard took 21st place, two positions behind Sébastien Reichenbach, 19th. On a bad note, the team lost Bruno Armirail for sickness and Quentin Pacher after a crash.
More than 3,500 meters of elevation gain were on the menu on the Vuelta this Thursday, but for the riders, the real climbing only began after a hundred kilometres. Before the double ascent of the Alto del Piornal, the fight for the breakaway was set to be contested on rather flat terrain. As usual, Groupama-FDJ tried to get involved, and this time, Thibaut Pinot and Rudy Molard were rewarded for their efforts. After an hour or so of racing, the two men were able to join a group of around forty riders. “The breakaway went after forty kilometres on a small road”, said Thibaut. “It went ten kilometres after the very big crash that occurred in the peloton and which, I think, discouraged some a little”. “It was kind of special, because the guys had to remobilize after the crash”, added Philippe Mauduit. “They were a bit shocked by the images when they especially saw Quentin’s return to the peloton. It took them a little while to get back into the fight and then the breakaway went in 3-4 waves. Thibaut followed the first one, Rudy the third”. While Quentin Pacher, badly hurt, resumed the race, his two teammates found themselves with serious contenders in the front, and the breakaway was able to take a nine-minute lead. “Breakaways with 40 riders are never easy to manage”, explained Thibaut. “The pace is never really high and there is not much cooperation. For that reason, we lost a lot of time to the peloton when they started to move behind”.
“We’ll try again, I’m motivated”, Thibaut Pinot
Around halfway through the race, UAE Team Emirates and Joao Almeida indeed took advantage of the steepest slopes of the day to launch a long-range attack. In just a few kilometres, the race changed, and the gap was reduced by half. “Everything was then uncertain, as a time trial started for the bunch”, said Philippe. At the start of the first climb of the Alto del Piornal (13.6 km at 5%), the leading group only had a margin of three minutes. “In the penultimate climb, I made the effort to go with the fewest possible riders, precisely to go faster and work well together”, explained Thibaut, who powered out in the lead with Hugh Carthy, Richard Carapaz, Sergio Higuita, Elie Gesbert and Robert Gesink. “It was absolutely necessary to try to break away with riders who were strong enough and who had the same interest to avoid the favourite’s return”, confirmed Philippe. At the top, the gap was made on the other members of the breakaway, but the GC contenders were still just as threatening. Therefore, despite a relatively good cooperation, the leading group saw its lead reduced to less than two minutes at the bottom of the final ascent of the Alto del Piornal, climbed from another side but also very steady (13.3 to 5.6 %). “We had very little margin”, added Thibaut, “At the bottom, we also looked a bit at each other with Carapaz. Gesink and Gesbert took advantage of it”.
With the slope not being ideal for an attack, Thibaut Pinot then remained in a chasing group for most of the climb, together with the Ecuadorian. “Having already won two stages, Carapaz may have gambled a bit and was counting on Thibaut to bring him back to the front,” Philippe assumed. The red jersey group, after catching Almeida, continued to close the gap. Three kilometres from the summit, Thibaut Pinot and Richard Carapaz were therefore caught while only Gesink was left in the lead. The Dutchman stayed away until the last 500 meters before Remco Evenepoel and Enric Mas overtook him in the very end. As for Thibaut Pinot, he kept on going all the way to the top with the other favorites and grabbed sixth on the line. “There is no doubt about Thibaut’s physical condition, but the race circumstances were not on his side”, decided Philippe. “It’s a shame because it’s almost the only breakaway that doesn’t make it on this Vuelta,” commented Thibaut. “I have no regrets. The legs were okay, but it’s just frustrating not to compete for the win until the summit. We will try again, I am motivated. There are two nice stages left, and today’s stage will leave its mark on the peloton. The negative point about today is losing Quentin. We will be five to finish the Vuelta, but we will do everything to finish well”.
“Losing Quentin because of a crash is a big disappointment”, Philippe Mauduit
Groupama-FDJ indeed lost two riders this Thursday. Bruno Armirail did not start the stage, and Quentin Pacher was forced to abandon following his crash. “Bruno was sick and very tired,” explained Philippe. “He already had to make an incredible effort yesterday to arrive within the time limit. Today, it would not have been reasonable to make him start. As for Quentin, he brought a fighting spirit and a lot of enthusiasm to the bus. He really gave momentum to this team for three weeks, and even when he was sick, he was an important member for the group. We also saw what he was capable of on the field. He was back to a very promising shape for the last 3-4 stages. So, losing him after such a bad crash today is a big disappointment for him and for us, because we would have liked to be able to fight with him until Madrid. But we’re not going to give up. Obviously, we have fewer chances mathematically, but we still have in-form, courageous, and motivated riders. Seb, Rudy and Thibaut are back in shape after small problems last week. We will keep fighting until Madrid”.