There is a little bit of Thibaut Pinot in all of us. In an era of Grand Tour racing where riders can often tap up the mountains metronomically like robots, their mouths set into thin lines, their emotions hidden behind pristine lycra and oversized sunglasses, Pinot offers a refreshing, brave display of humanity. He tells us that cycling is, in fact, very difficult. And that when someone is sitting on your wheel refusing to pull a turn, it is, in fact, very annoying. And that when you find your frustration building it is, in fact, very hard to keep it bottled in. And that when you try your very hardest, and you still do not win, it is very sad indeed.
The Frenchman’s intentions in stage 13 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia were clear from the off. In a stage that was shortened to just 75 kilometres after the organisation invoked the UCI’s extreme weather protocol, Pinot came out fast of the blocks, one of the key attackers on the first climb of the day, the Croix de Coeur. Soon, he formed a breakaway with four other riders: Einer Rubio (Movistar), Derek Gee (Israel-Premier Tech) and Jefferson Alexander Cepeda (EF Education-EasyPost) and Valentin Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën Team.)
Even then, when the race still had at least two hours until it would reach its conclusion, Pinot rode like a man with a point to prove. He simply could not settle into a rhythm, repeatedly getting out of the saddle with his teeth gritted to try and up the pace. Gee of Israel-Premier Tech even turned to Pinot at one point and asked him to keep the pace smooth, beseeching him to work with his companions rather than to try and attack them. The Groupama-FDJ rider shook his head, perhaps believing that Gee didn’t really understand: Pinot needed to win today, he was desperate for it.
When the small group crested the climb and the roads were laced with gravel and slippery ice, surrounded by sheets of white snow, Pinot pushed on. He took risks on the corners, leaving many onlookers forgetting that this was a rider who once said he hated descending. It seemed like Pinot would risk it all today for another Grand Tour stage win, for another taste of what it is like to be the best, to be the rider who comes out on top just one more time.
The 32-year-old’s longing for this success became almost hard to watch on the final climb of the stage. He was already irritated with his breakaway companions on the valley roads in between the two mountains of the day, shouting at the likes of Cepeda to do more work, but this irritation turned to distress and anguish as the kilometres to the finish line ticked down. Following live trackers of the race became almost comical: ‘Thibaut Pinot attacks again, Thibaut Pinot has a small gap, Thibaut Pinot attacks.’
Every time Cepeda and Rubio reeled him back in, Pinot, in his ragged and messy style, launched himself out of the saddle again. He didn’t seem to care if there were 10 kilometres of the climb left, he didn’t even seem to consider measuring his effort, it was about getting away from these two riders at all costs. And when it didn’t happen, the tension only built.
Forget power numbers, forget heart rate data, Pinot was riding up that final climb on passion and emotion alone. He was embarking on an emotional journey and taking us all on it with him, like he has done throughout his whole career. For a man who tries so hard to avoid the spotlight, Pinot is almost universally loved by the cycling community for this very reason. We’ve been there with him on the very highest of highs and the very lowest of lows.
There was a visible display of emotion from Thibaut Pinot at the finish of stage 13 (RCS Sport)
Stage 13 of the 2023 Giro d’Italia, sadly, painfully, falls into the category of the lows. Pinot yelled, attacked and gestured all the way up that final climb until he had nothing left when the finish line was finally in sight. Rubio, who in a stark contrast to Pinot had rode steadily for the entire stage, keeping well out of any conflicts or arguments, took the victory in one, strong attack a couple of hundred metres before the finish line. The reality is, Rubio had rode the race much smarter than Pinot. He’d done what you are supposed to do in a Grand Tour stage: kept calm and bided his time.
Pinot, on the other hand, had let his emotions get the better of him. He hadn’t been able to switch into the calm and collected mindset that is required so often of bike racers. He should have ridden this stage differently, he was strong enough to win if he'd have used his energy more efficiently. We all know that. But does it really matter? Do we ever want Pinot to change? He’s one of the few riders in today’s peloton that makes us feel something, that gives a glimpse into just how brutal this sport really is. How it can change lives, the pressures it can put on athletes and the cruelty and pain it can cause.
At the summit of the Crans Montana after Pinot had crossed the line in second place after just over two hours of giving every fibre of his being to try and win this stage, the Frenchman lay collapsed over the handlebars of his bike. His shoulders convulsed as he cried. Though his helmet covered his face from the cameras, his body language showed enough heartbreak for us all to feel it even through our television screens.
It’s an image that has been seen all too often in Pinot’s career, one that while desolate and melancholic, is part of the intrigue of the Groupama-FDJ rider. With Pinot planning to retire at the end of this season, today could have been one of the final dances from one of the greatest showmen in the sport. But Pinot does not put on a show with grand gestures or egotistical behaviour, he does it, without even meaning to, by giving us a small window into the beauty and complication of human existence. He shows how sportspeople, like all of us, feel everything that life throws at us: the love, the happiness, the passion, and all too often, the raw and empty sadness.
Cover image by Zac Williams/SWPix