COLMAR, France, July 10 (Reuters) - Thibaut Pinot's love-hate relationship with the Tour de France will face a big test on Thursday when the overall contenders take on their first hilltop finish at the top of La Planche des Belles Filles -- the Frenchman's back yard.
The Tour has always been a complicated affair for the Groupama-FDJ climber, who burst into the limelight in 2012 by winning a mountain stage in Porrentruy.
It was too much, too soon for the then 22-year-old, who crumbled under pressure the following year.
A quiet man who lives among farm animals and loves fishing in the quiet Eastern town of Melisey - population 1,680 - of which his father Regis is the mayor, Pinot openly despises the extravaganza of the Tour, its procession of TV helicopters and thousands of followers.
But he races in a French team and the Tour is a required passage.
In 2014, he managed to finish third overall before snatching a prestigious stage win at L'Alpe d'Huez in 2015 at the end of a disappointing overall showing.
He abandoned in 2016 and 2017, the year he took fourth place overall in the Giro d'Italia, which prompted his team to finally allow him to put all his eggs in the Italian basket in 2018.
With a podium finish in sight on the Giro last year, Pinot had to pull out before the final stage as he suffered from pneumonia.
An impressive climber who took another dimension when he won the 'Monument' classic Giro di Lombardia last year, Pinot's health is fragile.
This year, however, he is on the Tour on his own free will. A strong team time trial and a handful of seconds snatched from most of the overall contenders have put him in an ideal position ahead of Thursday's finish at La Planche des Belles Filles after a 7-km climb at an average gradient of 8.7%.
"We're not here to test ourselves, we're here to win. The tests, it was before the Tour," his sports director Philippe Mauduit told Reuters.
"This year he really wanted to be here. When you want to do things right, you come with a different mindset."
Pinot has been more relaxed this year, and on the back of strong showings all season the 29-year-old has more self-confidence.
He will have a chance to shine on Thursday on a climb he knows inside out.
"We live about 15 kilometres from La Planche des Belles Filles. It's a climb we've done since we were young and Thibaut knows every metre of it," his brother and coach Julien said.
"Thibaut climbed it first when he was 15-17 years old."
Pinot took 15th place there on the Tour in 2012 and finished second behind Vincenzo Nibali in 2014.
His rivals have already singled him out as one of the top favourites for the win on Thursday, and also for the overall victory in Paris.
"He and his team are impressive, they rode a super team time trial. He's a real contender for the overall win," said defending champion Geraint Thomas's sports director Nicolas Portal.
"He looks very strong and he will have special motivation tomorrow."
Two-time Tour de France champion Alberto Contador told Reuters: "He looks very fit. He will grab his opportunities. There are many things that show it could be his year."
Pinot trails overall leader and fellow Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe by 52 seconds, 12 behind top favourite Egan Bernal of Colombia and seven behind Thomas.
Since the first time a Tour stage ended up at La Planche des Belles Filles in 2012, the rider in yellow after the stage ended up winning the race -- Bradley Wiggins in 2012, Nibali in 2014 and Chris Froome in 2017. (Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)