You hear him coming. The roar of the crowd follows Thibaut Pinot as he passes, so you know the Frenchman is on his way, wherever you are. At the start of stage 20 of the Tour de France in Belfort on Saturday, the roars were almost cacophonous in the arena that was provided by the walls of the Citadelle for the sign-on.
The Groupama-FDJ rider is loved by the fans, fans who were using one of their last opportunities to cheer him before he exits stage left. Pinot is retiring at the end of the year, so stage 20 was the last time that many of the roadside will see him before he heads to his farm, and leaves the public world.
People love Pinot because he tries so hard, tries so hard but never quite delivers on everything that was expected of him. The great hope of French cycling of his generation has 33 career victories, including three Tour stage wins, and a podium finish, but never quite hit the heights that had been drawn for him. For every triumphant win there is a multiple heartbreaking losses.
Even at this Tour, his valedictory ride, the 33-year-old has been trying as hard as ever to get that one last win, just as desperately as he was at the Giro d'Italia earlier this year. It just didn't happen. On Saturday, Pinot rolled the dice one last time, made the breakaway, attacked with 31km to go, only to be caught with 13km still to race. He finished seventh. One more near miss, for the king of near misses.
“It was an incredible stage," he told French television post-stage, amid crowds that went wild for him. "I was really motivated. For the last few days I’ve only had this in my mind. In the end, I did what I could to try and bridge across to the front group. For me, though, It was just pure joy.”
He won the combativity prize on Saturday, but it's unlikely that the gold numbers will make him happy. However, his performance on stage 20 probably should, as he proved once more that he was willing to try, to entertain, to show emotion. His last big ride out being on home roads probably also helped.
“I’m at home here. It’s crazy. These are my training routes, It’s here that I always…” his voice trailed off as he choked up. “I’m heavy-hearted. It feels like a page of my story is ending today.”
On one bend on the Petit Ballon there was a whole Pinot fan club, where his family was, a goodbye party, almost.
“I was trying to find my family," he explained. "I spotted some familiar faces, but there was so many people, I couldn’t see everyone. I was lucky enough to go through leading the race.”
Asked whether that was deliberate, he responded: “No that wasn’t necessarily the plan. It was just that, if I wanted to win the race, I had to do that.”
His team boss, Marc Madiot, had many more eloquent things to say about Pinot, and about why he is so popular, on this “very special day”.
“You can’t trick the fans,” he said. “The people who are the roadside, who wait for hours to watch the riders come past, this is what they come to see. They come to see guys who give everything they’ve got, and they come to feel the suffering, but also the character and charm.”
Sadly, he did not manage to stop and greet Pinot’s adoring public. “We stopped but I wasn’t able to get out of the car,” Madiot said. “It would’ve been a bit difficult and Christian Prudhomme would have honked his horn at us if we hung around for too long.”
As for Pinot, his great charge, one who has entertained and been loved over the past 13 years of his career, one last doomed attack adds to, rather than takes from his appeal. He might have won many races, but he will be remembered for the exhausted near-misses, the dare we say failures, as much as the successes.
“Thibaut Pinot is a unique rider," Madiot explained, barely drawing a breath over the next paragraph. "He’s a unique rider because, when you look at his palmarès, it’s a few lines on a sheet of paper. But each line has a meaning, a story. Why is there so much emotion today? Well, quite simply because I think he’s an authentic rider. He lays himself bare, he shows everyone what he’s about.
"Sometimes I’ve even called him up on it and said, ‘You’re giving too much of yourself.’ But actually, it’s what has created his strength and his popularity with the fans. Thibaut never pretends. When you’re with him every day in the team, it’s not always easy, because you feel his torment and difficulty along with him. But conversely when he goes on the hunt for success, he carries you in his arms.
"It’s really, really, really unique. When people make rankings of the best riders in history, Pinot won’t be there. But he’ll be remembered as one of the most real riders.”
Thibaut Pinot retiring leaves a hole in the sport, a vacuum where a rider with emotions once was. As sad as that is, remember it was his decision to step away now, to go and be happier with his goats. A unique rider leaves.
🔥🔥🔥 Merci Thibaut 🔥🔥🔥#TDF2023 | @ThibautPinot pic.twitter.com/waXVhEK9zeJuly 22, 2023
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