Thibaut Pinot may be riding on Italian roads in 2021, but his French team has got his back.
Groupama-FDJ confirmed Tuesday that its long-standing focal point would be bypassing the Tour de France for just the second time in his career, instead turning his eye toward the Giro d’Italia. In Pinot’s absence, fast-finishing Frenchman Arnaud Démare will be taking the reins at the team in this summer’s Tour in what makes for a rare shift in approach for the French squad.
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Team boss Marc Madiot insists the decision was not a sign of lost confidence in the 30-year-old climber.
“I don’t know if he’ll win the Giro d’Italia one day, I don’t know if he’ll win the Tour de France one day, but one thing I’m sure of is that he’ll try to do it,” Madiot said of Pinot. “As long as he has a number on his back, he’ll give everything he has to do it.”
Pinot, 30, has missed the Tour only once in his nine-year career, sitting out the 2018 race as he recovered from the pneumonia he contracted at that year’s Giro. In his absence, the team sent Démare. The 29-year-old sprinter duly delivered with a stage win and three further podium finishes that year, but has not returned since as Groupama-FDJ piled its resources into Pinot’s GC ambition. For those three years, Pinot has twice failed to finish and in 2020, saw his ambitions hit the deck as he struggled with injuries sustained in an opening-stage crash.
Pinot’s tragic relationship with his home grand tour has traced from a debut 10th place in 2012 and career-best third in 2014 to recent years blighted by bad luck, tearful abandons, and accusations of mental fragility. Madiot braced against Pinot’s doubters during his team’s press conference Tuesday.
“Pinot is anything but what they say about him,” he said. “Pinot knows how to hurt himself, he trains, he is serious, diligent, both on the bike and in the professional approach. He gives 100 percent of what he has. So all that deserves respect.”
Although Pinot has management confidence on his side, it wasn’t enough to see him scheduled for the Tour this year in a rare pivot to his calendar. For Pinot, it’s a case of stepping sideways before stepping forward.
Pinot looks to Italy for inspiration
Pinot explained Tuesday that the call to race the Giro was partly due to the time trial and sprint-heavy course planned for the Tour de France, partly to shake up a struggling grand tour mojo.
Having come close to a podium finish at the 2018 Giro before crumbling and then abandoning with pneumonia in the final phase of high passes, Pinot is looking for new inspiration in Italy this May.
“I felt it was the right year to return to the Giro given the routes of the Tour and Giro, and my last two complicated Tours. I needed to restart with a new program and new objectives,” he said. “The pink jersey race is one of the most beautiful races to go and therefore obviously, I am impatient to return to the Giro, and above all to be at 100 percent to finally regain pleasure on the bike in competition.”
Pinot was distraught when his 2020 Tour went up in smoke as back pain saw him off the pace in the Pyrenees, saying afterward “maybe it’s a turning point of my career.”
The call to race the Giro in 2021 may mark the start of that shift. After years of shouldering the huge expectations of the French public at the Tour, Pinot said the step away from home scrutiny will liberate him as he targets the top in Italy before a planned return to his home race in 2022.
“I’ll do the Giro day by day and I’ll see,” he said. “The important thing is to fight and win races – to let myself go and stop calculating to the millimeter like I’ve done before. Instead, I want to express myself like I know how, with my qualities and my defects.”
Démare eyes green jersey opportunity at Tour de France
Pinot vowed to return to the Tour next season, but Démare may have something to say about that. Having long been forced to play second fiddle to Pinot in the grand tour selection process, 2021 is his big chance to stake his claim at the center of his team.
“I was often put behind Thibaut, but we are on an equal footing now,” said the French national champion Tuesday.
Démare enjoyed a stellar summer last year, scoring 12 wins, including four at the Giro d’Italia. Démare’s Giro campaign also saw him fend off a challenge from Peter Sagan to take the ciclamino points jersey, and he’s now eyeing his first Tour de France green jersey in a race stacked with at least a half-dozen opportunities for fast finishers.
Démare said that a shot at the green jersey would come via stage wins rather than the canny accumulation of intermediate points, a tactic Sagan has profited from through the years. Having proven at the Giro that he can win from a spectrum of sprint scenarios, the powerful Frenchman could be winning from as early as the punchy opener at the grand départ in Brittany.
“I am thinking of going to the Tour in the same state of mind as at the Giro,” he said. “For the points jersey, you need victories. It will become a goal when the race starts, after a week.
“I wanted to go back to the Tour before I even knew the course. When I did see it [i.e., the route], I was thrilled,” he continued. “I had always dreamed of being the sprinter of a grand tour. I did it at the Giro, and I want to do the same again [in 2021]. I know that it’s doable, with my teammates we all have the same goal.”
Démare will likely face a stacked sprinter field in France including the likes of Sagan, Sam Bennett, Wout van Aert, Michael Matthews, and Caleb Ewan. With Pinot vowing to return to the race next year, Démare won’t just be fighting for the sprints, but also for a slot in Groupama-FDJ’s Tour de France squad for years to come.