Adieu, Thibaut Pinot!

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

For many French cycling fans, and likely for many fans around the world, the highlight of the 2023 Tour de France took place on the slopes of the penultimate climb of stage 20, the Col du Petit Ballon, when Frenchman Thibaut Pinot rode past with a lead of 26 seconds on his last-ever Tour mountain stage.

Several thousand Pinot fans had packed both sides of the road, especially the section renamed “the Pinot curve” for the occasion. Some of those adoring fans were probably his neighbours for he lives on a farm in the commune of Melisey, just 80 km from the summit. As he stormed past, they cheered, sang, shouted his name, waved French flags and hoisted placards bearing messages honouring their hero in a moving and loud tribute that brought tears to the eyes of Pinot’s long-time Francais des Jeux coach Marc Madiot.

The 33-year-old Pinot could not hold his lead and eventually finished seventh in the stage, 33 seconds behind the winner, Tadej Pogačar. But nobody seemed to mind because the Frenchman had again shown courage and daring and again reminded his fans, and all cycling fans, that the sport is not so much about winning as it is about drama. And though he never won a Grand Tour or a major multi-stage race, Pinot was a class act for his entire career, gaining fans around the world because he was a rare breed of athlete, authentic and straight-shooting. (As he said of himself and Madiot, “We speak only when we have something to say.”)

Recall what was probably his darkest moment, when he was forced to abandon the 2019 Tour during stage 19 after injuring his left thigh when he collided with a handlebar. He struggled up a climb after the mishap, trying to ride through the pain, before finally stopping and abandoning the race in tears. Earlier in the race, he had won a stage on the iconic Col du Tourmalet and stood fifth in the GC, less than 2 minutes behind the leader, fellow Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe. For many fans and commentators, he seemed poised to finally fulfil his dream of winning the Tour and ending more than 40 years of French frustration. But it was not to be.

Thibaut Pinot
Thibaut Pinot before his last race the 2023 Il Lombardia.

But that show of despair was a moment that was moving and dramatic and endeared him to the cycling fans everywhere. Pinot never pretended to be anything but what he knew himself to be, “not a great champion, but a good rider,” as he put it. He also understood why he had so many fans despite his average record. “People love the emotions we convey to them on TV,” he said. “I am a rider who gives that to them, without wanting to.”

It could be said that he suffered a great deal of bad luck during his career, particularly at the Tour, a race all of France thought he would win and become the first French rider since Bernard Hinault, in 1985, to win the host country’s greatest sporting event. Take for example stage 8 of last year’s Tour, when Pinot crashed, remounted and caught up with the peloton, only to be struck in the face by a musette (a bag containing food and drink) handed to a Trek-Segafredo rider by a team soigneur as the Frenchman was riding through the feed zone. Misfortune seemed to follow him like a shadow.

He entered 10 Tours, finished six, won three stages plus the 2014 young rider classification. His best finish was third, in the 2014 Tour, which made him an instant favourite for the following year. But in 2015 he crashed, suffered mechanical problems and cracked in the Pyrenees, which left him far behind in the GC standings. But then he won the race’s queen stage, with a finish on the iconic Alpe d’Huez, and became a hero again. If his success in the Tour de France was limited, he certainly knew how to choose his victories: two of his three stage wins were on the most legendary mountains in the race.

It was fitting that Pinot’s final professional race was Il Lombardia because his 2018 victory in that race remains “the best memory” of his career, he said in a recent interview. “Because it’s a Monument… and because I was able to take on the role of leader and favourite,” he said, and added: “And to beat [Vincenzo] Nibali in his house made the victory even more beautiful.”

Though he was briefly prominent near the end of this year’s Il Lombardia, Pinot finished 37th, 8:52 behind the winner, Tadej Pogačar. But he crossed the finish line at his own pace and with two FDJ-Groupama teammates, in the manner of Grand Tour winners in the last stage of a race. And in many ways, though he didn’t win often, Pinot exited the stage very much a winner. Just ask any French cycling fan.