By Julien Pretot
BRIOUDE, France (Reuters) - Thibaut Pinot is heading into the second week of the Tour de France as the best placed of the pre-race favourites but his Groupama-FDJ team manager knows there is still a long way to go.
"We just had the aperitif. There's still the main course and the cheese left," Marc Madiot told reporters on Sunday.
"It's quite simple: we're nine stages into the race, we have not been through the high mountains and there is one individual time trial left, so come see me in 10 days," he said when asked if Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014, could win the Tour.
No Frenchman has won the Tour since Bernard Hinault claimed the last of his five titles in 1985 and the home-grown riders struggled to be contenders for the title during the drug-ravaged era from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s.
But now Pinot is third overall, 53 seconds behind compatriot Julian Alaphilippe, and ahead of defending champion Welshman Geraint Thomas and his Ineos team mate Colombian Egan Bernal, after a perfectly timed attack in the finale of Saturday's eighth stage saw him gain almost half a minute over his main rivals.
"What we've done so far is very good. We are satisfied, we've done even more than we expected but there are still two weeks of racing left," said Madiot.
The 29-year-old Pinot is among the best climbers in the world, has now won stages in all three grands tours and has also claimed the race of his dreams, the Giro Di Lombardia 'Monument' classic, last October.
His Groupama-FDJ team have improved and they are now more respected in the bunch.
"We take our share of the work in the peloton because we have the means. With Arnaud Demare (who is not on the Tour) we are sprint contenders and with Thibaut we are GC contenders," Madiot said.
"We're part of the race, we can have an influence on how it unfolds. But there is no euphoria. Being in the business for 23 years, I know too well that you can lose everything in a heartbeat," he added.
"I've been through almost everything in the Tour. (When we started out in 1997) we were with our two sports directors' cars behind the gruppetto (late riders in the mountain stages) wondering if we would make it within the time cut."
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris)