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Is Thibaut Pinot the most human of all professional cyclists?

7 Sep 2020

Words: Joseph Robinson Photography: Chris Auld

The image is hard to forget: Thibaut Pinot, visibly distraught and in pain, surrounded by his Groupama-FDJ teammates, haemorrhaging time on General Classification as his hopes of Grand Tour glory slowly fade away up the side of a mountain.

It was the most heartbreaking scene of the Tour de France so far – France’s biggest opportunity of a first yellow jersey since Bernard Hinault in 1985 disappearing before its eyes. Sadly though, it is a circumstance becoming all too familiar for poor Pinot.

Rolling across the Loudenvielle finish line around 20 minutes behind the yellow jersey group having been dispatched on the lower slopes of the Port de Bales, the now 30-year-old was honest in his assessment of the day and the race and as a whole.

‘I just want to apologize to my teammates, because it’s a lot of failures for everyone: for the team, for me,’ Pinot told French newspaper L’Equipe. ‘Today is maybe a turning point in my career, it’s too many failures for me. I always say that cycling is about fighting and having fun.’

Things had been looking good for Pinot in the run-up to this year’s Tour, as they usually do, although the signs were there. Pulling out of the French National Championships citing back pain from the Criterium du Dauphine, he also crashed on the opening day of this year’s Tour, a washout around Nice. While he managed to hold firm on Stage 4 and Stage 6’s flirtation with the mountains, it was Stage 8, the first big day in the Pyrenees that eventually cracked Pinot.

‘I clung to encouraging signs, but it was a hassle since Saturday’s opening stage. My back hurts so much that I have no strength, I cannot pedal,” Pinot said after Stage 8. ‘I am not going to leave the Tour, I never considered it, but it is a difficult day.’

Now, on the race’s first rest day in Bordeaux, Pinot finds himself in a situation that is all too familiar.

Remember last year’s Tour? To some Pinot was almost nailed on for yellow. Fuelled by time loss in the crosswinds, he was flying through the Pyrenees dispatching all in his wake. After a stage victory on the Tourmalet and a huge statement of intent on the road to Foix, the momentum was his and he was the only man who looked a match for Team Ineos duo Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas.

But then came the bad knee on the stage to Tignes, sustained after an innocuous crash a few days before. We had the inability to pedal properly, the haemorrhaging of time, the eventual abandonment, the tears in the team car, that conversation with Marc Madiot – almost a carbon copy of this weekend.

Go back one more year and it is the same story at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, with a certain podium ripped from his grasp on the penultimate day. The demands of three weeks of racing catching up with Pinot’s body, he developed a chest infection that saw him eventually abandon on the final day. His howling cough caught by the cameras was a soundtrack to that Italian failure.

Pinot’s body and mind faltering at a Grand Tour is becoming a regular occurrence and, as he admits himself, could be a sign that a yellow jersey is not supposed to be. But if there is anything the man from the far east of France can take solace in is that with every failure, he grows fonder in the hearts of those in love with the sport of cycling.

Because when Pinot gave the television cameras side-eye on Sunday or was blubbing in his team car or coughing his insides up, us fans did not turn our backs on him as we do with others, Fabio Aru abandoning the Tour yesterday being case in point. With Pinot, his failures seem to draw us closer to him.

Professional cyclists are superhuman both in their Herculean efforts but also, most of the time, their ability to show little to no emotion. To remain methodic, robotic in their approach to what is ultimately very emotional and demanding moments.

The consistent chinks in Pinot’s body act as proof to us mere mortals that these people are human, that they can fall foul of the same things we also suffer from on the bike, and his emotional outbursts in the aftermath relatable to us. It’s not just the selfies with his beloved goats that endear us to him, it is the constant reminder that he is simply one of us.

And what makes him even more desirable for us fans is when he gets it right, boy, does he get it right. In fact, I do not think labelling Pinot as the best climber in the professional peloton is an exaggeration. A rollcall of victories on Alpe d’Huez, Col du Tourmalet, Lagos de Covadonga, Grand Colombier and at Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia are only reserved for the very, very best.

It’s just that, unlike with the likes of Thomas, Bernal, Roglic, Froome, Pinot is unable to piece these moments of utter magic together into a coherent three weeks for overall victory.

When racing resumes tomorrow with Stage 10 to île de Ré, France will continue its realisation that its hunt for a yellow jersey is realistically up for another year and Pinot will be left with a choice: ride on in defiance or go home and regroup.

Whatever his decision, I think the cycling world will cross its fingers that Pinot doesn’t give up on his quest for yellow because for every very human failure he has endured during his career, his successes have proved that this is still very much a human sport.