ALBI, France -- The depth of disappointment etched on Thibaut Pinot's face after Monday's gusty crosswinds reshuffled the deck in the 2019 Tour de France was a measure of his ambition.
"It was a day of s---,'' he said just past the finish line, still in the saddle, chinstrap buckled. Then he turned away from the cameras and pushed off for the slow roll back to equilibrium.
By Tuesday noontime, Pinot admitted "anger, a lot of anger,'' but was able to project resolve before a crowd of mostly French media inquiring about his state of mind after he backslid from third to 11th place in the overall standings, 2:33 behind current race leader Julian Alaphilippe and 1:21 shy of defending champion Geraint Thomas of Team Ineos.
Pinot, who had raced himself into the lead of the "virtual" standings among ostensible title contenders, said he drew some comfort from knowing he wasn't alone in his frustration and distress. He saw those emotions mirrored in the expressions of his teammates and heard the intent to channel them constructively.
"That shows something about us as a group,'' said Pinot, the 29-year-old leader of Groupama-FDJ, as a chorus of cicadas buzzed in the summer heat around him. "We're not going to give up. There are going to be failures among the team leaders. Everyone isn't going to be in top form.''
Realistically, Pinot and others who absorbed time losses may need Ineos to have an uncharacteristically bad day -- "They're the best team, that's clear,'' Pinot said -- to feed hopes of a potential upset. Five other team leaders were caught on the wrong side of a wind-aided split in the peloton that opened up for good after the peloton rounded a traffic circle about 18 miles from the finish in Albi. The big winners on the day were Thomas and his Ineos teammate Egan Bernal, who sit second and third overall.
But Pinot wears the singular mantle of being the best candidate to break the 34-year championship drought by French riders at the Tour, a stretch so lengthy that the last winner, Bernard Hinault, has retired from his daily duties as race ambassador, his second career in the sport.
French fans have had to settle for stage wins and episodic valor -- the latest example of which is being demonstrated by master opportunist Alaphilippe of the Deceuninck-Quick Step team, who is not viewed as a Grand Tour title contender but is nonetheless sparking discussion about how long he can stay in the mix.
The reserved, social-media-averse Pinot, whose off-road pursuits include caring for sheep and goats in his hometown near the Vosges mountains, has not always welcomed that extra pressure. Yet his results over the years have made it inescapable, and magnified both successes and fiascos. He finished third in the 2014 Tour, has won stages at the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, and has worked at conquering a phobia of descents that once caused him humiliation.
Groupama riders and staff said they would not let one bad day blow away nine previous days of quality racing. General manager Marc Madiot told reporters that Tuesday's headlines were written "as if preparing for a funeral,'' a conclusion he disputed, saying it was more like "a soccer match at halftime where we're losing 1-0.''
Team director Philippe Mauduit, new to the staff this year, said what has most impressed him about Pinot is his resilience. "It's the opposite of what people think of him,'' Mauduit said. "He has a big morale. He's a fighter. Something bad happens yesterday, and from that bad moment, he's taking more strength and more power.''
No one expected the race to pivot at Stage 10, the eve of a rest day, before the Tour had really begun to go uphill. The first nine days unfolded in interesting and unpredictable ways with the exception of one snoozer of a flat stage destined for a sprint finish.
The chief contenders have largely avoided race-ending crashes or injuries. Thomas had the closest call, miraculously escaping from a pileup on a curve during Stage 8 in which he was catapulted into the air and landed on a teammate's bike, snapping the frame in two -- not a scenario a rider generally emerges from unscathed.
Team general manager Dave Brailsford did not restrain himself Tuesday. "I live and breathe and think all day about sticking the knife in, and when you get the chance, twisting it,'' he said.
But while gaining time on Pinot and distancing other overall threats with the high mountains yet to come was certainly a desirable outcome, Ineos road captain Luke Rowe spoke Tuesday with more tempered enthusiasm.
"If it had split really far out, at 100 kilometers, the Tour could have been won or lost,'' Rowe said, seated in the shade outside the team's hotel as reporters pressed him for analysis. "That's definitely not the situation we're in now. It was a great day, but I think we've got to keep our feet on the floor. Yes, we're in a great position, second and third (overall). But I think the big battle hasn't really begun.''
Crosswinds disrupt the normal physics that enable riders to draft and cling to each other's wheels, and force quick, instinctual decisions about when to attack and try to gap rivals.
When a team organizes itself into an "echelon," or diagonal rank, with riders taking turns at the front and rotating in to try and shield themselves from the worst effects of crosswinds, it fans out across the road. Options narrow for riders behind them, and small gaps or errors of judgment can quickly balloon into significant time losses. In cycling lingo, the elastic snaps when a group loses contact with the riders ahead.
There's no mystery to the tactics, just execution. Directors warned their teams when the crosswinds were likely to strike. EF Education First jumped initially, but didn't have the legs to consolidate their advantage, which was seized by Ineos instead.
"In the crosswind, it's just pure bike racing,'' Rowe said. "There's so little communication. There's no looking at your Garmin (performance monitor) for any facts or figures. It's just like an explosion in the peloton.
"In those situations, I think it's a lot more down to the riders than the [team directors] in the car. They do a great job, but you're the one with wind blowing on one cheek and then on the other.''
Overall contenders who want to salvage their chances can't afford to tread water during the first few days in the high mountains, and will feel pressure to race aggressively. The Tour enters the Pyrenees Thursday with a stage that includes two formidable climbs, but may not be decisive because it finishes on a descent into Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
Friday's individual time trial begins and ends in Pau, the southwestern French city known as the gateway to the Pyrenees. It's also probably the gateway to the real sorting process in the Tour standings, as Thomas should pick up time and most of his rivals will strive to limit their losses.
That test is followed by consecutive summit finishes. First up is the lengthy, legendary Col du Tourmalet, whose steepest gradients are near the top. Sunday brings a total of 5,000 meters of climbing that concludes with an ascent never before featured in the race, the Prat d'Albis in Foix.
By the Tour's next rest day on July 22, if things play out to form, it's possible that the race could, inexorably, be Team Ineos' to lose. But Monday's unexpected chaos underscores the fact that teams can't overlook Wednesday's Stage 11 -- a 104-mile jaunt from Albi to Toulouse that meanders north before looping around to the south and which also could be buffeted by crosswinds.
Mauduit, who said he was closely monitoring the weather forecast, visibly brightened at the prospect. "I hope so,'' he said. They don't plan to be caught out twice.