When asked if he would like to win the biggest bike race in the world, the grandest of tours through his home country, Thibaut Pinot told Equipe: “It’s the dream of every rider [to win], but it brings inconveniences with it. The French rider who wins the Tour will be a star. And do I want to be a star? No.”
French cyclists, whether they be Julian Alaphilippe, Romain Bardet, or 10 year-old-kids pedalling around sleepy villages, dream of one day claiming a yellow jersey and becoming the biggest French star since Bernard Hinault.
Pinot wants to prove himself on the biggest stage possible, and then get on with his normal life.
And that perfectly symbolises the very nature of this elusive, enigmatic character.
However, as we enter the third week of the Tour de France, Pinot has been thrust into the limelight whether he wanted to be or not.
While Alaphilippe’s against-the-odds dominance in the yellow jersey has been the focus of French fans in the initial weeks of the Grand Boucle, the focus is now turning towards the Groupama-FDJ man.
Pinot started the Tour impressively and consistently, working his way up through the GC to third position, before losing a hefty minute and 40 seconds all in one go when caught on the wrong side of a split in crosswinds on stage 10, a loss that he felt an “injustice,” sparking a desire for revenge.
And revenge for him was all-so sweet as he rampaged through the Pyrenees, taking a career-defining victory on the Tourmalet – one of the French-est mountains of them all – before powering past rider after rider on the way to second place on stage 15’s summit finish in Foix.Embed from Getty Images
And now, as Alaphilippe’s star begins to lose lustre, Pinot’s starts to burn stronger.
The French media limelight, something Pinot has avoided as much as possible in the past, is turning toward him.
Having struggled with the weight of French hopes for the past seven years of his career, where he jumped into their consciousness with a stage win in Porrentruy, how he handles that attention could be just as much a factor in whether the French get their first home Tour winner in 34 years as the issue how well Alaphilippe holds his form.
Pinot’s aversion to stardom is what makes him such a uniquely romantic character, and one that I personally desperately hope to see him flourish in this year’s Tour de France.
The 29-year-old is every bit as French as croissants and baguettes, having ridden in the various teams falling under the FDJ banner all his life.
With their manager Mark Madiot singing the La Marseillaise to them before every stage, and the team being sponsored by the national lottery, it’s a very French place to be.Embed from Getty Images
And furthermore, he forgoes hipper, more performance centric homes such as Andorra, Girona or Nice to stay in the area where he grew up in a small village in the Vosges – a largely mysterious, poor area of eastern France.
While his home may deny him the high-altitudes and tax-free status of many pro cycling meccas, living in the Vosges gives Pinot time to run his farm, and to cross country ski during winter rather than spend extensive time in Tenerife or Calpe.
All this stands in stark contrast to the man that he’s always bundled up with in the category of ‘France’s great hope’, the Ag2r-La Mondiale rider Romain Bardet.
The pair are only one year apart in age, but worlds different in temperament.Embed from Getty Images
Bardet engages widely in the world, like any young man of his age would – hangs out with hipsters in Monaco and cultivates a careful image around himself.
Pinot is a true family man however – he’s even coached by his brother rather than an external expert forced on him by teams or the weight of prestige, in what is a great symbol of what you could call a more emotive rather than science drive approach to the sport.
Just like his local climb the Planches des Belles Filles has been lurking in the Tour de France shadows for several years, becoming a semi-regular feature but never a true highlight – more an oddity – Pinot has always lurked just out of the limelight at the Tour.
However, just as the eye-wateringly steep climb rising out of Plancher-les-Mines in the Vosges came to prominence and has seen Pinot rise to our attention.
Pinot has always been put in the ‘Grand Tour Contender’ bucket, and after announcing his arrival in the sport with a stage win at his home Tour in 2012, truly stepped into the GC world in 2014 where he took third place and bagged the white jersey for best young rider.Embed from Getty Images
Since then, he’s always been there or thereabouts, taking stage wins in all three Grand Tours including atop of Alpe D’Huez and placing top six in the overall at the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. His run of late-season form in 2018 with two stage victories in the Vuelta was capped with a win in Il Lombardia.
Despite being a very French rider, Pinot has a fascination with Italy, and so it’s apt that he wins an Italian monument.
Pinot has “Only victory is beautiful” tattooed in Italian on his right arm and has recently shown bias toward the Giro rather than the Tour.Embed from Getty Images
Although he has planned to race every Tour since 2016, he DNF’d in 2016 and 2017 and failed to start in 2018 due to the illness he picked up at the Giro in the weeks prior.
This year, however, rather than putting the emphasis on the Giro and seeing what he had left for the Tour, he said that the Tour was his focus, and the Italian race was off the agenda for the year.
Pinot has tended to favour the Giro rather than the Tour to avoid that French media attention he so fears, and also as he prefers the cooler climates. He’s known for suffering when the mercury rises, and that’s part of a wider fragility and temperamentality.
He was once branded a bad descender, the result a nervous disposition and fear of speed that he had rectified through lessons with racing car drivers.
Along with such little chinks in his mental armour, he’s physically delicate, prone to colds and infection. He was taken out of the 2013 Tour with a cold, and abandoned 2018’s Giro after imploding and catching pneumonia on the final stage, just when he had looked destined for a podium place in the GC.
With temperatures in the final week of the Tour said to reach nearly 40 degrees, Pinot will have both the heat of the sun and the heat of the press on him. How he handles both of those will play a large part in whether he can become that great French hero his nation calls for.
You could argue that a professional sportsman should confront these weaknesses, maybe with media training, psychological help, or heat adaptation training. But the fact that they remain weaknesses is what makes Pinot such an appeal and identifiable character.
He’s very human.
And after years of the science-led ‘robotic’ dominance of Team Sky, he’s just what the Tour de France – and the French nation – needs.