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The Strange Case of Thibaut Pinot

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

Fact: A French rider has not won the Tour de France since 1985 when Bernard Hinault, nicknamed “The Badger”, wore the yellow jersey in Paris after the final stage.

Fact: Thibaut Pinot is a French rider who has not won the Tour de France.

Fact: Pinot will not win the Tour de France in 2021 since he is skipping it in favour of the Giro d’Italia.

The decision by the 30-year-old Groupama–FDJ rider to pass on this year’s Tour came as a surprise and probably a shock to many of his compatriots who have regarded him as the most likely rider to break their 35-year Tour drought since he won a stage at age 22 in the 2012 Tour and finished 10th overall. At 22 years and 54 days, he was the youngest rider to finish in the top 10 since Raymond Impanis in 1947.

Thibaut Pinot in 2012
In the 2012 edition of the Tour, Pinot finished 10th overall. © Profimedia

However, since then, he has experienced few triumphs and many setbacks in the Tour. In 2013, he fell far behind the leaders during a mountain descent in the Pyrenees, later claiming he had been afraid of the fast speed. “Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I’m afraid of speed. It’s a phobia,” Thibaut Pinot confessed. He then got the wire of his radio headset tangled in the front wheel and eventually came down with a sore throat. He dropped out after the second week while 52nd in the general classification.

A brilliant third-place finish in 2014 stoked hopes for an even better finish the following year. However, he suffered a flat on a paving stone section of an early stage, the team car was slow to arrive, and Pinot had a meltdown – which he suffered again a few minutes later when his derailleur broke down, causing him to lose 6 minutes. He finished 16th.

In 2016, he was well behind the leaders when forced to abandon because of bronchitis. He abandoned the Tour again the following year because of a fever and a lack of form. In 2018, he contracted pneumonia in the Giro and did not start the Tour. The following year, while 5th in the general classification, he was forced to quit during the 19th stage because of a muscle tear in his left thigh.

2020 Tour de France
“I’m afraid of speed. It’s a phobia.” © Profimedia

Last year, Pinot lost all chances for victory when he fell during a crash-filled first stage, injuring his back. He fought on and completed the race, finishing 29th. Pinot’s decision not to race in this year’s Tour caught everyone by surprise for he remains a “great French hope” despite his many disappointments. One might have thought that he was sparing himself further disappointment but he said this year’s Tour simply does not suit his style.

“It’s really a classic Tour,” he told L’Equipe in November, “with quite a lot of sprints and quite a lot of stages that really suit the puncheurs in particular.”

Instead, Pinot said he will concentrate on the Giro d’Italia, which will be run May 8-30 and where his competition will be stiff, including Vincenzo Nibali, Bauke Mollema, Simon Yates, Emanuel Buchmann, Mikel Landa, Aleksandr Vlasov and perhaps even Egan Bernal.

Pinot at Criterium du Dauphine
Pinot during the fifth stage of the 72nd edition of the Criterium du Dauphine.

“The maglia rosa, like the yellow jersey, makes you dream,” Pinot said when announcing his decision. “It’s one of the most beautiful races to try to win.” It will be Pinot’s third appearance at the Giro. He placed fourth overall on his debut in 2017 and looked set for a podium finish the following year only to abandon after falling ill on the penultimate stage.

He said he would be back in the Tour in 2022 but one can have doubts about that. Following his failure to keep up with the leaders in the 8th stage of last year’s Tour because of back pains, Pinot said, “Perhaps this is a turning point in my career. It has been too many failures for me. But I’ll continue to fight.”

However, injuries and illnesses have plagued Pinot not only in the Tour de France but in the Giro and Vuelta as well. Counting all his Grand Tour appearances, he has failed to finish, for one reason or another, half the races he entered: two of four Vueltas, one of two Giros and four of eight Tours.

During the 2015 Tour, after falling far behind the leaders, he told France TV: “I don’t understand why I’m like that. I believe in myself, otherwise I wouldn’t be here…. If I can’t ride at more than 300 watts, it’s because I have a problem somewhere.”

Thibaut Pinot at the 2015 Tour
“I don’t understand why I’m like that.” © Profimedia

Some commentators have suggested that the problem is in Thibaut Pinot’s head. For example, TV commentator Cyrille Guimard, a former road racer, told BFM TV in 2015, “[The problem] is mental, a loss of confidence, the goal that is out of reach and, suddenly, you are completely turned off. It’s normal not to have strength as soon as you no longer believe you can win.”

The problem may simply be that Pinot doesn’t have the mental and physical resilience to be a successful Grand Tour rider. A 50% abandonment rate is astonishing, especially when you consider the variety of reasons for his failures. However, he has performed much better in other stage races such as the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse.

In the 32 major, non-Grand Tour races he has entered since 2010, Pinot has abandoned only four and finished in the top ten in 16 races, including a brilliant 2nd place in last year’s Critérium. Maybe Thibaut Pinot’s problem is endurance, both mental and physical. At least, that’s what the record suggests.