What Next For Thibaut Pinot?

Thibaut Pinot is an easy athlete to root for. The French climber is shy but generous in interviews. He’s good for an attack or two on any given mountain stage. He doesn’t crave the spotlight or ride for a big-money team – he’s a classic underdog. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and there doesn’t appear to be any skeletons in his closet. He’s a country lad with an impressive menagerie at home, many of which are rescue animals. I root for him. When my daughter was born, I was wearing a t-shirt declaring “Allez Thibaut”. (Admittedly, that was just because it was the closest to hand at 3am.) Bizarrely, counter-intuitively, one of the things that draws one most to him is almost becoming a curse: his knack for being a Grand Tour nearly man.

Even before Pinot’s collapse on Stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia to Cervinia, he was heading towards a podium finish. A creditable podium? Sure. But it’d have been just the latest in a sequence of high finishes without going the extra mile to win. And with him in a contract year, and trapped in a love-hate relationship with his country’s expectations, it’s a good time to look about where he can go from now both in his cycling development, and in his career.

Pinot’s Palmares

Pinot burst onto the scene in the 2012 Tour de France – winning a stage and placing 10th on General Classification despite being the youngest rider in the race. His career since then has been steady. In Grands Tour, a 3rd in the 2015 Tour and 4th in the 2017 Giro are the highlights among a smattering of DNFs. Major week(-ish)-long stage races are a similar story. Winning this year’s Tour of the Alps (formerly the Giro del Trentino) represented his biggest career win to date. Top-5s across Tirreno-Adriatico, Itzulia, Tour de Suisse and Tour de Romandie demonstrate that he’s a perennial contender, at least. And he’s crammed stages won into both Grand Tours and week-long stage races. He’s just not parlayed them into stage race wins too often.

A few wins stand out. Beating Tom Dumoulin on the ITT of the 2016 Tour de Romandie looks shocking right now. Rebounding from early disappointment and heat-fatigue to win Stage 20 to Alpe d’Huez in the 2015 Tour de France is still highly creditable. And finally showing the tactical nous required to break away from a group unwilling to work together in the penultimate stage of the 2017 Giro showed development in that area.

Pinot’s Giro

This year’s Giro d’Italia had been going pretty well. Pinot had been there-and-abouts on stage finishes. He didn’t net a win, but picked up time bonuses for 2nd place on stage 9 and 3rd place on stages 6, 8 and 19. As Simon Yates soared into a comfortable GC-lead in his ultimately ill-fated quest for pink, Pinot remained towards the head of the field. But losing time to his rivals first on the Zoncolan and then the Prato Nervoso stages aren’t the sort of thing a would-be GC winner can afford to do. Unless they’re Chris Froome.

But it was the time trial that really hampered Pinot’s challenge for pink. See what I said two paragraphs up? Pinot beat the current World TT champion in a time trial in 2016. He was French national time trial champion that year too. Granted the French aren’t exactly stacked in that department right now, but it’s still an achievement. Yet in the Giro, Pinot was over three minutes down on stage winner Rohan Dennis, but more importantly lost 2:57 to Dumoulin, 2:44 to Froome, 1:42 to Simon Yates, even 59 seconds to Domenico Pozzovivo, hitherto an abysmal time trialist.

By the time of his collapse on Stage 20, Pinot wasn’t in the hunt to win the Giro. But third place would have equalled his career-best Grand Tour result, and indicated that even if he hadn’t kicked on yet, he wasn’t losing anything. Coming down with pneumonia and ending up being rushed to hospital after the stage doesn’t change that; that he insisted on finishing the stage is yet more evidence that cyclists are all utterly insane, but that’s neither here nor there.

The weak points

It seems like there’s always something with Pinot that stops him from kicking on, but it’s seldom the same thing.

Infamously, Pinot was a very nervous descender for many years. During the 2013 Tour he was near-inconsolable at losing contact with main groups on descents, caused by his tentativeness stemming from crashing as a young rider. At the time, maverick team manager Marc Madiot stuck young Thibaut behind the wheel of a sports car at Magny-Cours, to get him used to break-neck speeds and getting hairy on corners. It…kind of worked, I guess? I mean, he’s never going to be a Froome or Romain Bardet type who attacks 500m from a summit and then gains a minute and a quarter on a descent. But he can stay with a race leader group.

Then, as noted, there was the time trialling. I didn’t think it had ever been more than a comparative weakness for Pinot. Although, say he was 3 minutes down on the stage winner in the 2014 Tour time trial, he was only around a minute down on most GC riders, and finished 12th overall. Nonetheless, Pinot attacked the 2015-16 offseason with the aim of becoming a good time triallist. As mentioned, that led to a national time trial tile and that Romandie TT win. Before it all came crashing down in the Giro, it looked like another weakness turned into – if not a strength, then into something competitive. And maybe it will be again.

Pinot’s hamstrung somewhat by being French. Hear me out: If you’re a French cycling prodigy, you have to race the Tour de France. Temperatures in important GC stages of the Tour can comfortably exceed 30oC, and Pinot is known for not liking it hot. The Italian season tends to coalesce around spring, when temperatures are cooler. Thus, the strong performances in the Giro, and stage races like the Tour of the Alps. Not much that can be done about that.

I did want to have a look in how Pinot reacts to rest days. Rest days are pretty much exclusively a Grand Tour quirk – week-long stage races don’t need them. And it was after the second rest day that Pinot put in that atrocious time trial in this year’s Giro. But in the 2017 Giro, Pinot put in a middling time trial after the first rest day, and finished with the second group of climbers 1’35” down on Nibali on the queen stage, after the second rest day. That doesn’t scream major problem, even if it’s evidently not a strength either.

This long run of potential issues without anything terminal, it should be made clear, is to Pinot’s definite credit. Something goes wrong, he works on it and improves it. It’s just something else falls by the wayside instead. Maybe it’s just that everyone has limits to their athletic proficiency.

Options for Pinot

Terrifyingly, Groupama-FDJ haven’t ruled Pinot out of riding the Tour de France. This, after contracting pneumonia, ending up in hospital and essentially breaking? Dearie me. Look, FDJ have alternatives. They can send a team supporting Arnaud Demare and target stage wins on lumpy sprint stages, and send climbing phenom David Gaudu to either target a breakaway mountain stage win or a promising top-10. I don’t think Pinot goes to the Tour, but I understand Marc Madiot can’t just come out and say that, when he runs the most quintessentially French team, and it’s the Tour de France.

So, depending on how Pinot’s recovery goes, there’s late summer and autumn races to come. They might fancy a tilt for him at the Vuelta a España, though that really doesn’t suit his profile. He’s performed well in Il Lombardia – the final one-day monument of the year – before, so maybe there’s that. But it’s beyond that where the intrigue lies.

Pinot’s contract with Groupama-FDJ expires at the end of the season. And as one of the premier – if not elite – stage racers he’ll be much in demand. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where being able to lead at the Giro while not being obliged to race the Tour would be a stipulation of wherever he signs. Yes, Groupama-FDJ are the team that brought him to the fore and made him a contender, but the two seem to be growing apart. Besides, the emergence of David Gaudu means it wouldn’t be as catastrophic for them to lose Pinot.

Where else may Pinot sign? UAE-Team Emirates have been named quite regularly. They’ve seen their stage-racing hope Fabio Aru decline markedly in the last year or so, to the extent he barely made an impact at his home Grand Tour. But I’m not sure that another slightly volatile nearly-but-not-quite rider would be what UAE need. A few years ago Pinot was linked to Sky, but that seemed an odd rumour at the time, when Pinot’s rival Romain Bardet looked the more obvious fit in terms of temperament and outlook. EF-Drapac-Whatever are always on the look out for stage racers but they have to be considered a big step back for a would-be Grand Tour contender, given limited budget and poor supporting cast.

There are a few options I like more. Astana have Miguel Angel Lopez emerging but no other three-week GC riders. They’re a team with a big budget and potentially a strong supporting cast. Katusha-Alpecin may be a decent choice, Pinot could lead in the Giro while Ilnur Zakarin takes the Tour. However, I’ve settled on Trek-Segafredo as a great option. Trek are a weird team in limbo, without a slam dunk GC rider (Bauke Mollema, their best, is a lesser rider than Pinot), pieces of a good supporting cast (Tsgabu Grmay, Jarlinson Pantano, Gianluca Brambilla) without a coherent plan. Pinot would give them the opportunity to focus on the Giro, give credit to their Italian named sponsor Segafredo, and give a team that’s been down in the dumps too long in Grand Tours an opportunity to turn it round.

A Crossroads in his Career

Whatever happens, Thibaut Pinot is at a crossroads in his career. He needs to continue to work to improve on those areas that keep popping up, like bubbles in poorly-applied wallpaper. He needs to have a long hard think about whether he and Groupama-FDJ have gone as far as they can together, and what his next move needs to be. He has the advantage of youth – at 28 years old he’s not long entered the place where GC riders often hit their prime. But his next contract needs to be the one that pushes him to the next level, lest he join the ranks (albeit near the top) of great French talents who never quite won a Grand Tour and never quite became greats of the sport.

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