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The comeback kid: Is the Thibaut Pinot of 2020 back?

The French climber struggled with back pain for nearly two years but says he's felt the best he has since the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné after a strong showing at Tirreno-Adriatico.

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The last few seasons have been tough for Thibaut Pinot, but the Frenchman is feeling better than he has in almost two years.

In an interview with French newspaper L’Équipe, Pinot spoke about his sky-high morale after some very promising performances in the opening months of the season.

Pinot has been struggling with a back problem since a heavy crash on the rain-soaked opening stage of the 2020 Tour de France. It has pushed him to the edge physically and mentally and he hasn’t ridden a full grand tour since, only making it through two stages of the subsequent Vuelta a España before climbing off.

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After struggling throughout the 2021 season, there is a lot more for Pinot to smile about this year. He took a podium place on the final stage of the Tour de Alpes Maritimes et du Var in February and finished eighth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico after a decent performance on the final mountain stage.

He may have finished nearly two minutes down on Tadej Pogačar, but he was with many of the best climbers for most of the mountainous stage 6. It is an experience that he hasn’t had for a long time and one that he’d like to go back to again this season.

“At the first pass of the Monte Carpegna, I looked behind me, and only 20 riders were still hanging on. I didn’t understand why the others had to drop back,” Pinot told L’Équipe. “It’s because the good feeling was there. I hadn’t felt this good since the Dauphiné of 2020.

“I give my morale a nine out of 10 at the moment. I’ve waited so long to ride between the leaders again, so as not to have to ride in a grupetto 10 or 15 minutes behind. I don’t want to experience that feeling again.”

Pinot did not race a single grand tour last year. After struggling at the Tour of the Alps in late April, he and the team chose to pull the plug on his Giro d’Italia attempt and then his tilt at the Tour de France. Some solid rides in smaller races in the second half of the season were a change for Pinot to shine in what was otherwise a year to forget for the Frenchman.

Eighth overall — sandwiched between Bahrain-Victorious pairing Damiano Caruso and Pello Bilbao — at Tirreno-Adriatico is by far the biggest result since that 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné, where he finished second overall. Despite his joy at finding himself at the pointy end of proceedings, Pinot is realistic about his chances when he lines up at the Tour de France later in the season.

“I’m not on the street compared to my 100 percent potential, it gives me confidence and serenity for the rest of the season. Following Pogačar, I think, it’s impossible for me but finishing with the others, there’s no problem,” he said.

A career of setbacks and comebacks

Pinot’s lingering back problems were just the latest tale in his rollercoaster journey of a professional career. Over the last 12 seasons, Pinot has had to overcome several big setbacks.

Who can forget Pinot’s battle to overcome his fear of descending that plagued him in the early years of his career? With a lot of work, and the help of his team, he has overcome that fear and his descending is unrecognizable from those days nearly a decade ago.

More recently, in 2018, Pinot made a dramatic exit from the Giro d’Italia when it looked as though he might be on course to take his first podium at the race. Pinot’s difficulties that day were difficult to watch, and he would be taken to hospital with pneumonia after fighting to finish the stage.

He wouldn’t race for three months after that.

The following year, he was sitting comfortably in fifth place overall at the Tour de France, with another podium place within his grasp, when he was forced to abandon two days before Paris due to a muscular tear on his leg.

The 2020 season looked like it could be his year to right his wrongs, but it turned out to be another annus horribilis. With his form moving in the right direction once again, he and the team are feeling positive about his trajectory — let’s hope that this run will last for Pinot.

He’s earned it.

“He’s been progressing since the start,” sport director Sébastien Joly said after Pinot’s stage 6 performance. “The two first hilly stages allowed him to get in shape, and he has only improved since then. Today, it is a big satisfaction to see Thibaut back at this level.

“It had been a long time since he last competed with the world’s best on such a difficult course. At the finish, he could surely be satisfied with his day, and we are all very happy for him. He will now have to recover well and see how things go. Anyway, we’ve got the feeling that he is back.”

What exactly a 100 percent Pinot can achieve remains to be seen. The peloton has changed dramatically during his period of poor physical health with a raft of younger riders now packing out the top of the GC timesheets in grand tours and one-week stage races.

A Pinot in top form could definitely trouble major race podiums again, but he may need to push further than he has previously to achieve that and more.