Thibaut Pinot and the life-affirming beauty of imperfection

The Frenchman came close to a stage win in Pré-la-Joux, but with Pinot, defeat is as meaningful as victory

There were moments during Thibaut Pinot’s pursuit of Bob Jungels on stage nine of the 2022 Tour de France where it really looked like the Frenchman was going to catch the Luxembourger. This wasn’t blind hope, it was hope based on numbers and facts. In the parlance of modern self help, catching Jungels was a goal, not a dream. When Pinot launched his pursuit of Jungels soon after the Frenchman had started the climb of the Pas de Morgins, he was two minutes down. The important thing here was not how far there was to the finish, but how far to the top of the climb, because that was where Pinot could take the most time out of Jungels. That distance was nine kilometres, therefore Pinot needed to take 13.3 seconds per kilometre out of the tiring Ag2r rider. He took 23 seconds in the first kilometre, then 10, 20, 14 and 20 seconds in the next four. Pinot was going to win the stage.

But then some equally pertinent facts came into play. The top of the Morgins eases off, turning into the kind of drag that favours a rouleur like Jungels over a punchy climber like Pinot. Secondly, Pinot had overreached, because from the moment the gradient eased, he stopped making inroads into Jungels’ lead and started getting closed down by the next two riders on the road, Carlos Verona and Jonathan Castroviejo. And lastly, though Pinot’s career is a lifelong story of the pursuit of redemption and elusive glory, Jungels was looking for a little redemption of his own. He was more than a bit player in the drama which is the cycling career of Thibaut Pinot.

In the end, of course, Pinot didn’t catch Jungels. And of course he was caught and overtaken by Verona and Castroviejo in the final kilometre. Would we have wanted it any other way?

The modern world is not kind to those of us who tend towards disorder in our lives. We’re everywhere, and we chafe under the consequences of making life up as we go along. We’d like to eat out tonight, but we didn’t book a long way in advance and the restaurant is full. We thought a weekend in Paris would be nice, but it’s Thursday and the Eurostar is booked up. We’re bad at admin. We can’t be bothered with wattages, FTP and taking on fluids. We ride organically, and inefficiently.

Image: James Startt/Agence Zoom

At the same time, we are a lot more fun at parties. We recognise the life-affirming beauty of imperfection, and the impossible rarity of victory. And our patron saint is Thibaut Pinot.

Thibaut Pinot holds a mirror up to us as cycling fans and shows us what we are. If you’re the kind of cycling fan who likes winners and A-type personalities, he is not for you. Pinot reminds us that life is lumpy, not smooth; that a compelling story is more engaging than a strict plan. He’s a human among superhumans, our representative in the peloton.

At the same time, we would do well not to reduce Thibaut Pinot to the sum total of his misfortunes. He doesn’t solicit or need sympathy - he’s a highly paid athlete who has enjoyed huge success in cycling, with a monument victory at Il Lombardia, a podium finish at the Tour de France and fourth and sixth places at the Giro and Vuelta respectively. He does keep goats, and goats look cute in photographs (they’re also bad-tempered as hell, which doesn’t come across in the photos). But he’s also a stage winner on Alpe d’Huez, and not many riders have achieved that. He’s not the tragic hero of stereotype.

Image: Zac Williams/SWpix

But the fact is we can’t take our eyes off him, because something is always happening with Thibaut Pinot. Just 24 hours before his daring pursuit of Jungels, he actually managed to get punched in the face by riding into the outstretched fist of a rival team’s soigneur. He could and even should have won the Tour de France in 2019, but he was caught out when his team was ambushed in crosswinds, then after dazzling the race in the Pyrenees, had to pull out in tears when he pulled a muscle in the Alps. There was the period in 2013 when the yips interfered significantly with his descending. In 2015, the cobbled stage caught him out with a botched and bad-tempered bike change and he didn’t figure in the GC, but rescued his Tour with the Alpe d’Huez stage win. He stepped back from trying to win the Tour, spending a few years getting better results in Italy and generally looked a lot happier (though the curse of Thibaut eventually found him there - in 2019 he sat third overall with one mountain stage left, and exploded dramatically, pulling out before the finish). In 2020, he crashed on stage one of the Tour and the subsequent back injury lasted for a long time.

Pinot is a complicated character, and he often looks like the weight of the world is upon his shoulders. However, there’s also a simplicity about him: he’s a country boy from the Vosges mountains, prefers small groups of people to big groups, and finds the strict rigours of modern training less fun than just riding on feel, all of which are quite normal. But there is a complicated paradox at the heart of cycling’s relationship with him. A lot of people want him to win, which is understandable - he’s a sympathetic character with a fascinating story. But defeat is an integral part of that fascinating story. When he loses, it allows us to wallow luxuriantly in the sympathy we feel towards him.

However, the narrative arc of the 2022 Tour has now given us enough Thibaut Pinot heartbreak. In Pré-la-Joux he was beaten by a better strategy, but on the harder climbing section of the race, he was the best of the break. Many will hope that he can achieve his stage win in the coming fortnight. They say it’s the hope that kills, but it’s actually the hope that keeps us alive.

Cover image: James Startt/Agence Zoom

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