Three riders, but only two seats left at the Tour podium banquet

Three men are separated by 15 seconds heading into Saturday's time trial, but there will only be room for two on the podium in Paris

Photo: Tim De Waele

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There’s a “situation” for the Tour de France podium that awaits in Paris. It’s as if someone has invited too many people to a dinner party, and that awkward moment is coming when there will not be enough seats for everyone.

There’s only room for two riders behind Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), and with three men lining up Saturday separated by 15 seconds of glory, someone is going to leave this Tour very disappointed.

Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) do not represent a direct threat to Nibali, but they are divided by just 15 seconds heading into Saturday’s 54km race of truth.

Two will reach the Tour podium for the first time in their careers, while a third will be handed a fourth-place finish that almost no one will remember — except for how they missed what was a chance of a lifetime.

Who will be the odd man out? It’s hard to read exactly how the 54km time trial will play out between the three podium protagonists. None are considered strong time trialists, at least when compared to a specialist like Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), but the only comparison that matters Saturday will be against each other.

Two will reach the podium — likely for the first and last time for Peraud and Valverde, who are both well into their 30s — and one will be left with fourth place, and the nagging doubt about what they could have done differently.

The rolling TT course features four significant climbs, followed by descents. It’s far from a straightforward test solely of power; bike handling will play a factor. The weather forecast calls for rain in the morning, with sunshine in the afternoon.

With finishing times expected to be well over one hour, time gaps should be definitive.

“The final time trial course fits Valverde well,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “At the end of the Tour, it’s about freshness and who has the legs. It’s going to be close.”

However Thursday’s final climbing stage across the Pyrénées was the last chance to settle matters before Saturday’s TT, and Pinot and Peraud both did themselves favors by distancing Valverde, who dropped from second to fourth.

The time differences might be negligible, but the psychological factor could prove decisive. Valverde has been struggling against the surprisingly strong French, and could wobble once again.

For Valverde, 34, the stakes couldn’t be higher. One of Spain’s most prolific winners, Valverde can win across all terrain, from the mountains to spring classics to sprints, but his Achilles’ heel has always been time trialing, at least in his quest to win a grand tour. He finally won one, with the 2009 Vuelta a España, but he was caught up in the Operación Puerto blood-doping scandal, and handed down a two-year ban right in the peak of his career.

With teammate Nairo Quintana set to return to the Tour next year following his dramatic Giro d’Italia victory in May, this could well be Valverde’s last shot at the Tour podium.

On Thursday, Valverde was sounding pragmatic about what will happen Saturday.

“It’s all in play, we’ll see what happens,” Valverde said. “Everything depends on the form that day. I hope to have good legs Saturday. If I do, then anything is possible. I am not far back, and with the small differences, it’s still wide open. It’s going to be exciting, that’s for sure.”

All three podium contenders have rarely time trialed against each other in the same race, and even if they did, comparing performances isn’t always the best gauge for predicting future outcomes.

All three recently locked horns at the Vuelta al País Vasco, on a very hilly, 26km course in Spain’s Basque Country, when Peraud took 27 seconds out of Valverde. Peraud ending up finishing third overall, and if Peraud could take one second per kilometer on Valverde, he would assure himself France’s first podium since Richard Virenque was second in 1997. Pinot was 10th at the Vuelta al País Vasco time trial.

Valverde is Spain’s reigning national time trial champion, a hint that he’s improved against the clock, but that was against a thin field of Spanish climbers; Alberto Contador did not participate.

Pinot, meanwhile, has steadily improved his time trialing, finishing ninth in TTs at both the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse, promising results against fairly deep fields this year.

“It’s nice to be second [overall], but what counts is being on the podium Sunday in Paris,” Pinot said Thursday. “I’d hate to ruin all the work we’ve done, and finish off the podium.”

Pinot, however, admits he’s in a complicated situation. For experience and abilities against the clock, both Valverde and Peraud will have an edge.

“There’s only 15 seconds dividing us, and I am the lesser rouleur of the three of us. I will need to have a great day to fend off Peraud, who is a very good rouleur. And Valverde, who is the Spanish national time trial champion, he’s not bad, either,” Pinot continued. “I’ve improved, I’ve been top 10 in time trials in stage races this year, something that shows I’ve progressed, but I have no references for a time trial longer than 50km. It’s a question of maturity and experience.”

FDJ manager Marc Madiot was sounding confident, saying, “Pinot will do a good time trial.”

Speaking to reporters from L’Equipe, Madiot pointed out that in 2012, in a similarly long time trial at the end of the Tour, Pinot was 1:07 ahead of Peraud, and 3:06 faster than Valverde. Of course, the stakes and circumstances will be dramatically different Saturday.

And then there is Peraud, who has an opportunity of a lifetime of reaching the podium. A mountain-bike silver medalist in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Peraud’s best Tour performance was ninth in 2011. Since then, he’s struggled with injuries, crashes — including a horrible fall last year when he crashed in the final time trial on his already cracked left collarbone — and otherwise underwhelming performances.

At 37, he wasn’t expecting to be fighting for the GC, so much so he didn’t even bother previewing the stages in the Pyrénées. The exit of such favorites as pre-race favorites Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), coupled with his surprisingly solid climbing legs, Peraud finds himself on the cusp of history.

“We are euphoric, but we are keeping it on the inside, waiting for Paris,” Ag2r sport director Julien Jurdie told L’Equipe. “We are optimistic about Jean-Christophe’s chances. He’s the best time trialist of the three, and he has a strong character.”

Peraud was being cautious, especially after suffering up Hautacam on Thursday, where he said, “I nearly lost everything.”

“I inspected the [TT] route by car, I like it,” Peraud said. “I believe I can reach the podium, perhaps even second place, but if I have legs like I did on Hautacam, it’s hard to say.”

Everyone agrees it will be the riders with the freshest legs who will prevail Saturday. The course is far from easy. Far from being a flat, pure power course, it covers rolling terrain, with four un-rated climbs, features that will tip the favor toward whoever simply has the most fuel left in the tank.

Pinot will have an advantage by starting second-to-last, giving him time references to his two direct rivals. Valverde and Peraud will be driven, knowing that this is very likely their last chance to reach the Tour podium. Pinot already has a lock on the best young rider’s jersey, and looked strongest through the Pyrénées.

In a Tour without time bonuses, all three arrive virtually tied after three weeks of racing, meaning that every second will truly count Saturday. Perhaps the fairest thing to happen would one of the three simply gets blown away, making it obvious who deserves to stand on the final podium. Cycling is rarely that impartial. There’s also a very real possibility that one could crash, given the tight time margins and high stakes on the line.

Historic French podium

The possibility of two French riders on the final podium has historical significance. The last time that happened was in 1984, when Laurent Fignon won his second and last Tour, with Bernard Hinault finishing second, and Greg Lemond third.

With Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) hoping to hang on to fifth — Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) lurks at 2:07 back — opens another possibility for the resurgent French.

Since World War II, three French riders have finished in the top-5 at the Tour only four times, in 1954, 1959, 1964, and 1965.

The peloton has internationalized dramatically since those days, but three riders in the top-5, with possibly two on the final podium, reveals just how far French cycling has come.

“Everything that is happening is good for French cycling,” Jurdie told L’Equipe. “We came here thinking of a top-10, and now the podium is within reach. It gives everyone a warm feeling.”


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