For much of the race it was the best Tour de France since 1989. It had suspense, unpredictability, an unexpected yellow jersey and a very uncertain outcome. But as soon as Thibaut Pinot rolled to an emotional stop last Friday, everything changed.
At that point, the drama that had played out over the previous three weeks started to deflate. Sure, the truncating of the two Alpine stages due to flooding and landslides didn’t help. But, with Egan Bernal and Team Ineos stamping their authority on the event in a way they had been unable to until then, it seemed to me that all sense of mystery evaporated.
What was missing was Pinot. For this writer, the Frenchman had been one of the biggest stars of the race. He got caught up in the echelons and yielded early time, yet fought back with an uncharacteristically good time trial. He then excelled in the Pyrenees, with two superb surges. One yielded him a stage win, the other catapulted him right back in the fight for the final yellow jersey.
It was emotional, it was stirring, and it made for great viewing. But, more than that, it was for me very human. Human in the sense that Pinot was an underdog. Human in the sense that he was wrestling with past disappointments, with a run of bad luck in Grand Tours and a near 50 percent DNF record.
And human in the sense that he wasn’t just racing for himself, but was also striving to help France recover from three decades of disappointments.
Pinot had been in superb form and would have ended a 34-year drought had he topped the podium in Paris. Cycling is full of coulda, shoulda, wouldas, but there are several reasons why I believe a victory by the 29 year old would have been a major boost to the sport.
Here are those reasons why I wanted Pinot to win, and why I believe the Tour, and cycling, missed out on the best possible outcome to the race:
LONG OVERDUE HOME SUCCESS
When Bernard Hinault won his fifth Tour de France on July 21, 1985, it seemed inevitable that more French victories would follow. Laurent Fignon had won the previous two editions and, although injured the following year, his return to top form was fully expected.
In addition to that, young hope Jean François Bernard was waiting in the wings and was being spoken of as Hinault’s natural successor. Bernard won a Tour stage in each of the next two editions, wearing yellow after a stunning Mont Ventoux victory in 1987, but that was as good as it got for him. Instead, the French nation was hit by multiple disappointments in its most prestigious annual sporting event, with no home rider able to bring yellow to Paris.
Hinault, Fignon, Richard Virenque and Jean-Christophe Peraud went closest, netting second in the race between 1986 and 2014, but French cycling has been waiting 34 long years for a new winner. This year, Pinot and compatriot Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) quickened the pulses of the host nation with their exploits in the Tour. As a cruel twist, stage 19 would both put Pinot out of the race and also see Alaphilippe lose yellow after wearing it for most of the race.
Pinot said after his tearful exit that he was convinced he would win the Tour. He had twice dropped Bernal in the Pyrenees and, had he not been injured, may well have been able to handle him in the Alps. And had he gone on to wear yellow to Paris, there would have been a profound effect on French cycling. The sport would have boomed in the country, boosting sponsorships and audience figures, and bringing more young people into cycling.
The knock-on effects may also have helped ASO in its recently-stated plan to run a major stage race for pro women.
Watching Pinot in the Tour quickened the pulses of many. He is a born attacker, a competitor who rides on his emotions rather than racing in a calculating way. Go back and watch his surging attack on the Pyrenean stage to Foix; he surges in and out of the saddle, fighting his bike and riding with a desperate intensity. He looked like a man racing home after being told his house was on fire.
For roadside spectators, it was a very human spectacle. For TV viewers, it made for compelling footage. His desire was writ large and plain to see.
That same desire has been reflected in the reactions of his team manager. Pinot put Marc Madiot’s pulse rate through the ceiling back in 2012 when he raced to his first stage victory. Madiot famously hung out the FDJ car window, yelling and roaring and encouraging and cajoling the-then 22 year old rider across the line. The footage went viral, cementing the impression that Madiot is a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve.
On stage 14, the energetic exhortations happened all over again. Madiot stood near the finish line and had a near-meltdown when his rider burst forth from the group of GC favorites to win atop the Tourmalet. He screamed repeatedly at the TV screen; ‘Allez Thibaut! T’es grand aujord’hui!’ [Go Thibaut! You are great today! Yes! Yes! You are going to do it!] He then paused, watched the image of him crossed the line, then raised his hands, whooped and turned and ran towards the finish, left fist waiving in the air.
At that moment Madiot reminded of a little kid chasing an ice cream van. It was pure enjoyment, and overwhelming emotion.
But it wasn’t just the former Paris-Roubaix winner who was willing Pinot on. Most of France was doing the same and, in truth, a far wider audience. After years of calculated, scientific campaigns to win the Maillot Jaune, after years of marginal gains and a dry, methodical approach by Team Sky, the Groupama-FDJ bid represented a more romantic, emotional attempt to capture yellow. The fact that he was fighting back from a crosswind-provoked time loss earlier in the race only added to his appeal.
Pinot also represented the underdog. He was a breath of fresh air after Team Sky dominance, representing a change from a period where six out of the previous seven Tours were won by the British squad. The nature of sport is that people often desire change, unpredictability, suspense. A different face, a different team atop the podium in Paris is, for many, long overdue.
A VERY HUMAN CHAMPION
Attacking aside, part of Pinot’s appeal is his human frailty. He has had many career successes, including his Tour stages, his third overall and best young rider award in the 2014 race, plus stage victories in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España. He also won Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia via some brilliant racing last autumn. Yet he’s also had many setbacks, including a meltdown in the 2013 Tour over a fear of descending, and DNFs in half of the Grand Tours he has started. He was third overall in the 2018 Giro d’Italia with two stages remaining, but dropped out of the race sick.
Things appear to go very right or very wrong for Pinot. There is little middle ground. That makes things difficult at times for his supporters, but also make him seem more human. He is far removed from a metronomic, robotic type of rider. The highs and lows of his career, and the very real effort he shows when going flat out make it easier to identify with him. And the mental strength he shows in bouncing back from setbacks endear him to many.
They want him to win because they have seen him lose. They relish the highs because they have watched him endure the lows. And, because of that frailty, it is easier to feel he represents the everyman, that he is one of us.
A WELCOME TRANSPARENCY:
Perhaps the biggest draw about Pinot is the hope that he represents clean cycling. In 2014, his coach (and brother) Julien Pinot, FDJ trainer Fred Grappe and his team voluntarily published released six years’ worth of data, including power measurements at various intensities, VO2 max and other parameters. It marked the first time ever that such extensive information about a rider had been made public. That data showed a talented athlete who had made continuous improvements year on year from a young age.
And while such data hasn’t been released since, Pinot’s gesture and his approach to the sport have inspired confidence of his peers. One WorldTour rider told VeloNews that the Frenchman had his backing. “I really believe in Pinot. I’m a big fan of his,” he said, noting that while it’s impossible to fully vouch for someone, that he considers his transparency to be a good sign.
UAE Team Emirates rider Dan Martin also gave Pinot’s character a thumbs up. “He is an incredibly nice person. He is very humble, very quietly spoken,” he said. “Quite timid, but he is honest. He is straight.”
Pinot’s Groupama-FDJ team is also part of the MPCC, which means that it undergoes more rigorous anti-doping tests and rules than non-member teams.
Former Festina team trainer Antoine Vayer has been one of the biggest critics in pro cycling, using climbing times to accuse riders of doping. He has raised questions about many including, in this year’s Tour, Julian Alaphilippe. But he tells VeloNews that he finds Pinot’s performances to be credible.
“I’m really happy, he is one good guy. There is nothing Not Normal,” he said, using a phrase for suspicious power performances. “I knew him when he was 20, he rode in 2012 with approximately the same level. And all smells good, not shit everywhere around him.”
Vayer vouches for few riders, but has also stated in the French press this July that he has no skepticism about Pinot.
Pinot, too, has been outspoken at times against doping. He took a scathing approach in March when his Groupama-FDJ teammate Georg Preidler was caught up in the Operation Anderlass doping affair. Pinot told l’Equipe that he considered Preidler’s actions as ‘high treason,’ and said he was stunned and felt betrayed.
“When he won his stage at the Tour of Poland, I was as happy as though I’d won myself, because I had feelings of friendship for that guy,” he stated. “After that, did he want to win races himself or did he just want to be stronger to be at my side? Those are the questions I’m asking myself and I don’t have any answers because he had no pressure on him to get results.
“I would like to understand [this]. He had become a friend. I almost felt sorry for him, because he’s screwed up his life, the idiot.”
Weighing up these factors is a judgement call, of course. Many riders have said and done things in the past that later turned out not to be true. But for this writer, there are reasons to feel more secure in Pinot’s ethics than with many others. That, too, is why I wanted him to wear yellow in Paris.
LOOKING TOWARDS 2020
Whether or not Pinot would have won the 2019 Tour is now purely a matter of debate. Injury forced him out three days from the end, and so we will never know. What can be said is that the race lost a lot of luster without him. Some of that was caused by the neutralized stage on stage 19 and the shortened race the following day. But the loss of his flair and attacking spirit in the event meant that Bernal’s path to the yellow jersey became far easier than it might have been. The race also suddenly became a lot more predictable than it previously had been.
French cycling will now have to wait another year to see if its long drought will end. Pinot has returned home to his home in the village of Mélisey, a place where his father is the mayor and where the rider keeps sheep and goats. Such is his love of nature and peace that he said before the Tour that he was torn about wanting to win the race.
“I like my life as it is at the moment. It’s the life I dreamt of and if I win the Tour de France, I won’t have this life anymore. Do I want to change my life? No,” he told l’Equipe. He added that winning the Tour was “not an obsession.”
Pinot’s search for the Maillot Jaune should be seen in this light. He isn’t chasing fame or fortune but, rather, his motivation seems to be to make the most of his natural ability. In the days since his withdrawal, he has pledged to return in 2020. He will be trying to deliver on his potential, to do justice to his talents.
Can he win the race? Considering what he showed this July, yes. Will he win it? Time will tell. But, given the significance to French cycling, given his attacking flair, given his perseverance in the light of setbacks and given his transparency, a Pinot victory could be a very good thing for the sport of cycling.