Thibaut Pinot and the thrall of the Tour de France nearly-men

Thibaut Pinot's absorbing career heads to its conclusion, while the rest of the class of 1990 may have seen their Tour opportunity pass by

It seems that the dream so many cycling fans in France and across the world have long harboured of one day seeing Thibaut Pinot win the Tour de France will go unfulfilled. The 32-year-old last week announced his intention to retire at the end of the 2023 season, bringing to an end a rollercoaster career of thrilling highs and heart-breaking lows in which so many have been greatly invested. 

In truth, becoming France’s long-awaited anointed one to finally reclaim the yellow jersey for the home nation after so many years always seemed like a long shot, but there were enough moments of brilliance to keep the pipe dream alive. But Pinot’s real desires in life now seem to exist outside of cycling, and upon announcing his retirement he talked about his excitement at being able to focus on his other passions such as tending to the animals on his farm in Mélisey. Perhaps his fans were more invested in the yellow jersey dream than he ever was?

By no fair measure could Pinot’s career ever be described as a failure. By finishing third at the 2014 Tour he became one of the first Frenchman to make the podium in 17 years, a huge achievement in its own right, even if it was ultimately to be the highest he’d ever finish at a Grand Tour. Among his three Tour stage wins were memorable ones atop two of the most iconic mountains of all, the Col du Tourmalet and Alpe d’Huez, and other victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España put him in the exclusive club of riders to win stages in all three Grand Tours. He won plenty of other races elsewhere, most notably the 2018 edition of Il Lombardia.

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Yet for all these successes, his career will be remembered as much for his near-misses and disappointments. The 2019 Tour de France was the most devastating of all, in which he abandoned in floods of tears after a freak knee injury prevented him from capitalising on what was the form of his life, form so good that he looked like he might even have been able to win the yellow jersey in the upcoming Alpine stages. But there were several similar agonies over the years, from his being denied a podium finish at the 2018 Giro d’Italia after catching pneumonia with just two days to go, to various other crashes and bouts of sickness that have ended his hopes for glory in other Grand Tours. 

Pinot's trip to the Tour de France podium in 2014 was not expected to be his last (Getty Images)

It was this fragility and imperfection that helped make Pinot such an endearing figure, and exactly the kind of personality that cycling needed when his career began, a time when trust in the sport was arguably at an all-time low. His breakthrough stage win in Porrentruy at the 2012 Tour (the one immortalised by FDJ manager Marc Madiot’s hysterical celebrations) and his podium finish in 2014 came either side of Lance Armstrong’s overdue confession to doping, and by speaking out openly and frankly about the issue of drugs, and through his refusal to even take substances that were ethically dubious rather than banned like those used with TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions), he represented a hope that the new generation of stars would compete clean. Compared with Armstrong and the other household names of the EPO era, Pinot always appeared more natural; to watch him suffer climbing up a mountain, with the constant sense that he might crack at any moment, was something more relatable to witness. 

Pinot is far from being the only rider of his generation who never quite went on to achieve what was expected of him from a young age. In fact, there are multiple riders all born within a year whose careers have followed very similar arcs, and have now either come to an end, or are in their twilight years. Only last summer Tom Dumoulin bowed out from the sport, having taken an indefinite break the year before, citing fatigue and an inability to recapture his best form despite being only 31 years old. Unlike Pinot, he did manage to win a Grand Tour at the 2017 Giro d’Italia, and altogether was less prone to ill-fortune and jours sans, but he too had grown weary of the sport and its extreme demands on the body. A year earlier Fabio Aru had retired at the same age, after years of failing to recapture the form that saw him make the podium of the Giro d’Italia and win the Vuelta a España in 2015.

Nairo Quintana may not have hung up his cleats just yet, but his future is in doubt following his ongoing failure to find a team in the aftermath of his tramadol violation. He’s enjoyed more success than any of the aforementioned riders, winning both the Giro and the Vuelta along with multiple podium finishes at the Tour, but the yellow jersey victory that once seemed an inevitability never did happen, and his form too waned over the years. And though Romain Bardet and Mikel Landa are still going strong, the former did appear to peak several years ago with podium finishes at the 2016 and 2017 Tours, while the latter has always remained at the same level without ever quite making the leap to Grand Tour winner. 

Chris Froome's dominance stood in the way of the Tour dreams for many of 1990's Grand Tour generation (Getty Images)

All of these riders were born between December 1989 and November 1990, and all of them shared a common nemesis: Chris Froome and Team Sky. None of them have managed to win the Tour de France, yet it’s not unreasonable to say they might have done were it not for the unstoppable juggernaut that was Sky during the 2010s. On one hand, the team’s unparalleled financial clout enabled them to assemble rosters that always gave Froome a significant advantage. But such sustained success also speaks volumes to Froome’s astonishing steadfastness and stoicism, and his ability to take all of the extreme taxations of the sport in his stride without ever becoming overwhelmed. That he’s still riding today, despite being born a whole five years earlier than Pinot and the others, and even after his horrific accident in 2019, speaks volumes about his insatiable appetite for racing. 

As the new wave of young riders lead by Tadej Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard and Remco Evenepoel take the peloton by storm, these riders of 1990 have been superseded as Grand Tour contenders. Pinot will be the next to retire, and others will surely follow soon, probably having also never quite reached the longed-for pinnacle of winning the Tour de France. Looking back now at this vanishing era of the sport’s history, it’s clear to see just how difficult it is to reach this level even for riders who show so much promise in their early years — and also just how exceptional a competitor Chris Froome was to keep winning as relentlessly and single-mindedly as he did.