Thibaut Pinot says there is still "cycling at two speeds" in the peloton, telling French newspaper L'Équipe (opens in new tab) in an extensive interview his thoughts on cortisone and ketone use after receiving a TUE this winter for his back pain.
The Groupama-FDJ's 2020 season was derailed by a crash on stage one of the Tour de France, battling through the next three weeks so as to not register a fifth abandonment in eight starts.
Pinot's decision to then start the Vuelta a España was one based purely on pride, the Frenchman says, and that his back is still troubling him now six months later, which worries him with the new season beginning imminently.
Having resumed training on November 20, his back was as painful as before his time off the bike, saying he then made a decision he should have long before, to receive an injection of cortisone.
"From an ethical point of view, I have always been against it. There, we were in a period totally out of competition, in the middle of winter. I would never have done that between two races," Pinot says, adding that he didn't have an ethical problem with his decision as the use was "really in order to heal me". The topic is, however, one that continues to rile him.
"Of course, it pisses me off. I just saw that corticosteroids would be banned in racing in 2022. When you have an injection or you use cortisone, there are at least three weeks of effects...some [riders] do [it] just before the races. You are out of competition, but the effect is there.
"I'm the complete opposite of all of that, but we're still in two-speed cycling I think...a guy who has a TUE has no place being on a bicycle. He is not fit to compete."
Does Pinot think that many riders in the peloton use TUEs to gain an unfair advantage? He says he'd rather not know, but that he now knows just how much of an effect it can have on performance.
"I don't know, I don't hope, but anyway, we play along, but is everyone doing it? I prefer not to know. But if it's 2022 or 2023, it will be the end of my career, so I would never have known cycling without all of that...
"Since I turned pro, people talk to me about this, about that, then again about that...there's always something new coming up. I'm sick of it because when I see the effect the injection has had on my back, I tell myself that there are several races that I would have finished. My fall in the Tour last summer, the injury in 2019."
As for ketones, Pinot says the most concerning thing is that young riders are being contacted via Instagram by people trying to sell them the product.
"We don't really know [the true effect of ketones] but why do riders keep throwing their cans in nature and, on the other hand, the small vials of ketones, they keep them in their pockets?" Pinot asks. "I do not understand. We are told that it makes you lose weight, but the hardest part in cycling is not doing six or seven hours, it is precisely the weight, to lose weight while keeping your power and strength.
"Some studies say it dries you out, but if it is, it's already huge. Some runners are contacted on Instagram, canvassed to buy ketones. I tell myself that juniors, hopefuls, who are alone, young people who absolutely want to go pro, can be tempted, and that shocks me."
It is rare for a rider of the level of Pinot to speak with such candour about these matters, saying the existence of the MPCC and not all teams belong to it means "we know we don't all follow the same rules, that's a shame".
He goes on to explain the effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on out-of-competition doping controls, and that he was last visited by officials was before the 2020 Tour de France.
"Since then, no unexpected checks. It worries everyone. After [the pandemic began], the controls are targeted, so I hope that some riders are a little more targeted than me."
As for the future, Pinot says he once again needs a break from the Tour, like he did in 2018, as a third consecutive disappointment at the French Grand Tour this year would be too much to bear, and anyway, the parcours don't necessarily suit another tilt at the yellow jersey.
"Above all, it is that there are many arrivals downhill. At the top, there are three (Tignes, Col du Portet, Luz Ardiden). The arrival in Tignes is a hill climb, not an arrival at the top. For a climber like me, three is not enough. It is only there that I express myself, that I take pleasure."
As for 2022, Pinot envisions coming back to the Tour "with the knife between my teeth", as he did in 2019.
"I still have the level to do great things on the Tour de France, I'm convinced of it."
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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