“We have found the next French winner of the Tour”. This sentence, Pascal Orlandi, boss of AC Bisontine, still hears it in the mouth of the sports director of his amateur club. It was fifteen years ago. “It’s the only time he’s ventured that prediction in nearly half a century. He wasn’t far wrong.” This rider is Thibaut Pinot, labeled as the “new Richard Virenque” from his first pedal strokes.
Since then, there have been ups and downs. But there is also a popularity rating that has never stopped growing. At 32, while the best years of his career seem behind him, Thibaut Pinot has never been so popular, at a time when the Grande Boucle 2022 will start from Copenhagen (Denmark), Friday July 2. The Groupama-FDJ rider has become the symbol of old-fashioned cycling, without calculation, and 100% authentic.
The tattoo on his forearm, in Italian in the text, may affirm that “only victory is beautiful”, at Thibaut Pinot, the trophy cabinet is far from overflowing. Among young people, already, it is forged in difficulty. “In the juniors, there were very few races for pure climbers”remembers Johan Le Bon, junior world champion… thanks to the help of Pinot. “He often ended up on the podium, but rarely on the top step.” Jacques Decrion, renowned coach from the east of France, inherited the task to polish the rough diamond which, from its beginnings, pays for itself and strips its A booklet. “With his savings, we went to buy a second-hand power meter in Switzerland. It cost a pretty penny at the time.”
Even if it means circumventing the parental obstacle. Because mom and dad would have seen their son with a police uniform on his back. “His parents refused to let him cycle the 11 km journey between his home, in Mélisey, and his high school, in Lure. Too many trucks, they said”, sighs Jacques Decrion. To progress, the Franc-Comtois is forced to program his alarm clock 45 minutes earlier for a home-trainer session in the family garage. “He never balked. It was only years later that he admitted to me that he took no pleasure in it. He was already a hard worker.” Forget the clichés of a cozy Thibaut Pinot with a fragile mind.
Pleasure, he finds it in training, in the open air. “For hours, we climbed bumps around his house, and we played the Grand Prix de la montagne, attacking two kilometers from the top. We weren’t pretending”, recalls Geoffrey Soupe, today in the TotalEnergies team, who knew Thibaut Pinot at the Etupes club. At the time, invisible preparation, very little for him. “I never had a massage at home.he slips into West France. I didn’t do sheathing. I considered that I did not need it since everything was rolling. Stretching was when I had five minutes to spare. And full stop.”
A victory for the Espoirs at the prestigious Tour du Val d’Aoste later and here is Thibaut Pinot, 20, bombarded professional within the FDJ formation. “He was half fig half grape when I told him, when many other riders would have jumped for joy. Cycling was becoming a job, not really a story of friends”recalls Jacques Decrion.
Switching to pro in 2011, first stage victory with a place in the Top 10 of the Grande Boucle in 2012, white jersey for the best young person (under 25) on the 2014 Tour… Others would have succumbed to delusions of grandeur. Not him. “He doesn’t have teeth that scratch the floor. When you go to his house, you’ve understood everything. He lives where no one will go. He’s at the end of the end of the last road of Mélisey’s last path, in Haute-Saone”describes his manager, Marc Madiot, in his book Let’s talk about cycling. Not even a trip to the local dealership to afford a large engine. He has long kept his old jew’s harp with outdated shock absorbers. “Ah, the red 205!laughs Geoffrey Soupe. I see myself in it. Thibaut is really not a materialist.” “There was not even a radio-cassette”, adds his old friend, Paul Sage.
On two wheels, it’s just the opposite. Thibaut Pinot never tolerated the slightest relaxation: “Even when it was windy, he put his beautiful wheels on his beautiful white Look bikeremembers Paul Sage. At the time, things clashed in the peloton. The Italian class. It wasn’t to get noticed, just to feel stylish.”
The opinion of others means a lot to him. Whether it comes from his inner circle, which has not budged an iota in two decades, or from a stranger posting messages on social networks. “He was told to put down his phonesighs Geoffrey Soup. It was stronger than him. He needed to feel loved.”
William Bonnet, the eternal lieutenant on the flat stages, keeps a painful memory of this Tour de France 2013 that Thibaut Pinot crossed like a ghost: “What hurt him the most were those who challenged his mind. It hurt him, you can’t imagine. Because he’s someone who doesn’t cheat.” Hence the need to be surrounded by a cocoon within an FDJ team that trusts its riders over time. “He wanted to run with his friends”insists Arnaud Courteille, who rubbed shoulders with him in the tricolor team. “The group atmosphere was essential for him.”
The boss of the all-powerful Sky team, Dave Brailsford, in vain spotted him in 2011, and approaching him in the following years, the homebody from Franche-Comté did not follow up. The preparation courses in the Canary Islands are really not his cup of tea. No more than a racing style with his nose glued to the watt meter to manage his effort like a Christopher Froome, remote-controlled by headset, under the orders of his sports director. “He often told me that he would have preferred to race in the 1980s”, underlines his old friend Cédric Pineau, a long-time teammate at the FDJ. A time when the races were more unbridled, less padlocked.
“Old-school racer etiquette, he claims it.”Cedric Pineau
With success, Thibaut Pinot learned to be a leader. “Having to ask for things or, worse, impose them, was anything but natural for him.describes William Bonnet. Some have it in them, not him. He had to feel that we trusted him before it happened. And even today, it’s still not someone who raises his voice. Pinot remains a passionate person who loves his sport to the point of chaining Tour and Vuelta in 2014 for fear of idleness. In Jerez de la Frontera (Spain), at the end of August, by 40°C, he meets the Irishman Dan Martin, who widens his eyes: “What are you doing here? But enjoy your podium on the Tour, you have nothing to do here!”
Only once, Thibaut Pinot has touched the Grail: a victory in the general classification on the Grande Boucle. In 2019, when we are no longer expecting it, it is ideally placed three days from the finish. But he has to give up, hurt. “We knew from the start of the stage that he was not doing well”remembers William Bonnet, about this mysterious thigh injury, who does not forgive. The umpteenth bad trick of a body that contrives to let go at the worst moment. “The day before, he had already gritted his teeth. We suspected that it would not go very far. But he tried one last time.” “You are a big one, strikes Marc Madiot at this critical moment, captured by the cameras of France Télévisions. A guy like you doesn’t give up. You never gave up. You overcame everything. Everything that was put in your face. You’re almost at the end, there’s a little hitch of fate.”
A marked abandonment of the seal of courage, which further reinforces its popularity. “Glory, he really doesn’t care”, insists Paul Sage. A victory on the Tour, a yellow jersey on the Champs, nothing to wake him up at night. “It was not his dream, even if he believed in it, one day, supports his friend Boris Zimin. His Grail would be more the Giro or the world champion’s rainbow jersey.”
Between Thibaut Pinot and the Grande Boucle, the relationship has always been complex. “In 2013, he didn’t even want to do the Tour, but his sponsor imposed it on him”, says Arnold Jeannesson, his ex-lieutenant in the mountains. “To win it, he would have to have a team dedicated to him. And every time it’s happened, he’s come through.” As if he was afraid of having too many responsibilities. “He has already told me that if he could have gone to the mountains to raise goats, he would have done it”, rewinds Paul Sage.
One of the former FDJ, Pierre Cazaux, has also chosen this conversion. He remains in close contact with a Thibaut Pinot who is passionate about his donkeys, goats, cows and sheep, which he monitors by webcam when he is abroad. “I don’t give him advice, no need. He knows a lot about animals”, smiles Pierre Cazaux.
His days off, Thibaut Pinot likes them with a fishing rod in hand, he who even has his own pond, “next to the house, perfect for having barbecues with friends”he confided to the magazine Pedal! seven years ago. “The best recovery day in the world, for me, is 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the pond”, was he also slipping World in 2016. If possible alone, far from solicitations. When his brother sends him to talk to business leaders in Franche-Comté, he spoils him afterwards, assuring him “prefer to climb Alpe-d’Huez three times in a row”. We let you guess who declined the invitation of the Minister of the Economy, a certain Emmanuel Macron, eager to meet the driving forces of French cycling in 2016. That day, Thibaut Pinot takes care of his garden rather than his tie knot.
A taste of his post-career? The interested party envisages it at home, in Mélisey, never too far from his animals and his pond. “I would like to renovate an old farmhouse and transform it into guest roomshe assured in Pedal!. When I see beautiful farms during training, it kinda makes me want to.”
Between two hammer blows, he can also indulge in one last passion: football (and PSG in particular). He who, during the winter break, sometimes puts on crampons with local cyclists, including Geoffrey Soupe: “He’s the kind of striker who doesn’t run a lot and who complains when the ball doesn’t arrive. A bit like Pippo Inzaghibut less good and just as bad a loser.” Here too, a form of old-fashioned sportsmanship. An appellation that will always stick to Thibaut Pinot’s shorts.