The weekly spin: Thibaut Pinot, pro cycling’s most mortal star

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You couldn’t help but cheer on Thibaut Pinot in the final 15km of Il Lombardia.

Why? In part, because Pinot was in the underdog role, battling against last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali, a champion of all three Grand Tours. Because you knew he’s struggled more. Because you knew how often he’d come close to a major victory, but fallen short. Because you knew it would mean more to Pinot than it would to Nibali.

Nibali, 33, is a champion of all three Grand Tours and a three-time Monument winner. Pinot, 28, has won stages at all three Grand Tours, but also has often been beaten by internal forces, either mental or physiological.

It’s fun to cheer on a prolific champion, but it’s easier to relate to an underdog.

Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) initially went clear of the bunch over the Muro di Sormano, the steepest climb of the 241km race, at about 45km remaining. Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) and then Egan Bernal (Team Sky) bridged up to the two leaders to make a decisive four-man front group, but those two would again lose contact when Pinot attacked on the Civiglio, the race’s final climb, which topped out 14km from the finish.

Knowing that he needed to rid himself of Nibali before the descent of the Civiglio — the same late-race climb where Nibali caught and then dropped Pinot en route to victory in 2017 —  the Frenchman repeatedly attacked the Italian before he finally broke the defending champion and opened a gap.

The finale at Il Lombardia was a two-man duel between 2017 winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).

Pinot went over the Civiglio nursing a 20-second lead over Nibali. From that point on it was man against man, but also man against mountainous descent — a mental battle that has plagued Pinot throughout his career.

No, Pinot is no stranger to victory. He won Milano-Torino on Wednesday. He won two mountain stages during the final week of the Vuelta a España last month. He won the Tour of the Alps, formerly known as the Giro del Trentino, in April.

But this was different. This was a Monument. This was Il Lombardia, the one he wanted most. And it was setting up in a very familiar fashion as it had one year earlier, when Nibali caught Pinot on the same climb, riding away for the victory, while Pinot would be caught and end up fifth.

This time it was Pinot crossing the line alone, a grin across his perma-stubble face, slapping the hands of his teammates in the final meters in front of crestfallen Italian fans. It was Pinot’s third consecutive top-five finish at Lombardia, after placing fifth last year and third in 2015. He became the first French winner since Laurent Jalabert, in 1997. It was only the third Monument for Marc Madiot’s FDJ team in 21 years, dating back to Fred Guesdon’s win at Paris-Roubaix in 1997; Arnaud Demare’s Milan-San Remo victory is the other. Pinot and Demare are the only French riders to take Monument wins since the turn of the century.

“Clearly, this is the most beautiful win of my career,” Pinot said. “Had I been able to choose one race to win, it would have been this one. This is a true achievement. My goal was to be alone at the top of Civiglio. I didn’t want to face another duel against Nibali on that downhill.”

Video: Highlights from the 2018 Il Lombardia

Pinot also credited Nibali with setting up the victory with his long-range attack on the Muro di Sormano. “I wanted it badly, so when I saw Nibali attacking, I thought it was the perfect move.With Roglic and Bernal, when we got a gap of 40 to 50 seconds, I understood it would be complicated for the others to come across.”

Nibali could only acknowledge that he’d been beaten by the better rider on the day.

“I couldn’t do any more,” Nibali said. “Pinot came out well from Milano-Torino, he’s having a good period of his season. He’s really at the top of his game, and he had to be in order to do something similar to what I did last year.”

During the Vuelta I posted on Twitter that Pinot is perhaps the “most mortal” of pro cycling’s big stars. Though he’s always a threat, at times his career has seemed to be a series of breakthroughs and breakdowns, in successive order. (Example: He’s started 11 Grand Tours; he’s finished in the top 10 on five occasions, and DNF’d on five occasions.)

Just this year, Pinot won the Tour of the Alps in April but then fell ill at the Giro d’Italia sitting third overall with just two days to go. In September, after falling out of GC contention at the Vuelta a España, he bounced back to win two stages in the final week.

This is how it’s been. Pinot has demonstrated brilliance and vulnerability in equal measure, always forthcoming about the reasons for failure.

And for some, that’s all the more reason to celebrate his successes.

‘No Excuses’

Thibaut Pinot was born in 1990 and raised in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. He’s coached by his older brother, Julien Pinot, a former amateur racer who earned a Ph.D. in sports science and now works within the Groupama-FDJ team.

His pro career began in 2010, at age 20; he’s spent the entirety of it with the FDJ team. His first major results came late in the 2011 season, in Northern Italy, when he finished third at Tre Valli Varesine and won the overall at the now-defunct Settimana Ciclistica Lombarda. No one could have known at the time, but performing at his best in Italian races would become a theme of Pinot’s career.

He broke through on the international stage at the 2012 Tour de France, when he soloed to a stage victory in Switzerland at age 22 — the youngest rider in the race, in his Grand Tour debut. He went on to finish 10th overall, the youngest rider to finish in the top 10 at Le Tour since 1947 and FDJ’s first-ever podium finish at its home race. Needless to say, Pinot was touted as the next big thing in French cycling.

In 2012, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-Bigmat) won a stage during his Tour de France debut; he went on to finish 10th overall.

However the following year Pinot had a mental collapse at the Tour, acknowledging a phobia of high-speed descents as the result of a crash as a junior when he broke both of his arms.

“Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I’m afraid of speed. It’s a phobia,” Pinot told L’Equipe after finishing a Pyrenean stage in tears, 25 minutes behind the leaders, in the grupetto. “When I saw that I was not able to stay on the wheel of a rider like Mark Cavendish on the descent off a mountain pass, I asked myself, ‘What am I doing on the Tour?’ I received the clear response that I have nothing to do here. This is a very sad situation for me, I’m the person who is most disappointed about it. I don’t know if I will be able to get over this trauma.”

Fear. Trauma. All understandable, and very mortal.

Pinot abandoned that Tour after 15 stages. To combat that fear, Pinot took to downhill skiing in the off season. He and his coaches also began providing him with as much information about upcoming descents as possible — gradient, width of road, switchbacks — and peppering him with photos and videos to fully prepare him.

He bounced back in 2014 to finish third overall and best young rider behind overall winner Vincenzo Nibali. He was, once again, the future of French cycling.

Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) finished third overall at the 2014 Tour de France, behind winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud (AG2R La Mondiale).

An advocate for transparency, in the months following that Tour podium he became the first WorldTour pro to release a career’s worth of power data, including his V02 max (85mL/ min/kg) and evolving watts per kilogram, showing his development from promising junior to Tour de France podium finisher.

In 2015 Pinot won stages at the Tour of Romandie and Tour de Suisse, but at the Tour, he lost time in the first week to crashes and mechanical issues, including a minor meltdown when he required a bike change across the cobblestones inside the final 20km on Stage 4. He bounced back to win Stage 20, atop l’Alpe d’Huez and finished the race 16th overall.

In 2016, Pinot won Criterium International and the French time trial championship, but he abandoned the Tour on Stage 13 after losing time first on the Col d’Aspin, the race’s first mountain test, and then crashing a week later, on the hectic day in the crosswinds that saw Peter Sagan and Chris Froome on the attack for the stage win.

Abandoning the Tour would be the end of Pinot’s 2016 season. He later would cite “persistent fatigue due to a virus” and was forced to withdraw his name from France’s Olympic squad, where he’d been selected to compete in both the road and time trial events.

“I simply didn’t have the legs. There’s no need to look for excuses,” Pinot said after his GC hopes evaporated on Stage 7. “This is the third time I’ve lost when the Tour has arrived first in the Pyrenees. There’s nothing else to say. It’s a pity my season has crumbled away. The Tour is the highlight of the season and now, from the first mountain stage, the objective is over.”

No excuses, he said. I just didn’t have it.

‘Only the victory is beautiful’

It’s no secret that Pinot feels most at home racing in Italy, and there’s been some speculation that it’s because he’s free of the immense pressure put on his shoulders by the French fans and media. As his career has progressed, it’s become clear he’s more likely to win the Giro than the Tour; more likely to win Lombardia than the Bretagne Classic. As his FDJ teammate Steve Morobito once said, “Thibaut has a temperament that makes him race more Italian than French, very spontaneously. He races by feel, and he accepts his passion.”

Pinot even has an Italian phrase tattooed across the inside of his right bicep — “Solo la vittoria è bella.” Only the victory is beautiful.

He finished fourth overall in his Giro debut in 2017, winning the final mountain stage before dropping off the podium in the final time trial, finishing just 37 seconds behind a third-placed Nibali. He was flat at the 2017 Tour, however, and abandoned on Stage 17 due to illness.

A close call at the Giro, and once again, disappointment at the Tour.

The 2018 season has been Pinot’s best yet, but it’s also been an emotional rollercoaster. He won the mountainous Tour of the Alps in April, bettering his runner-up finish in 2017, when he finished just seven seconds behind Geraint Thomas. It was an encouraging win heading into the Giro d’Italia, where he rode consistently and sat third overall following Chris Froome’s race-changing Stage 19 solo raid.

Pinot started Stage 20 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia in third place, but after suffering with a fever, he dropped more than 45 minutes. He was hospitalized and didn’t start the final stage.

The following day, Pinot collapsed on the penultimate climb on the final mountain stage, vomiting from the bike and ultimately losing over 40 minutes. He made it to the finish but was later diagnosed with pneumonia and exhaustion, and was ruled out of the Tour de France. It was what he would call the lowest point of his career.

Again, agonizingly close to the Giro podium, and again Tour de France disenchantment. Exhaustion, from a colossal effort. Collapse, with one day remaining. All very mortal.

The past two months have shown the best form of Pinot’s career — the pair of stage wins at the Vuelta, a very strong ninth-place finish at worlds riding in support of Julian Alaphilippe and Romain Bardet, and then four top-five finishes in Italy in the past week, culminating in the victories at Milano-Torino, and ultimately Lombardia on Saturday.

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), 2018 Il Lombardia winner.

Pinot’s solo victory was a demonstration of strength and savvy, but what it took to get there was a demonstration of character. His impressive late-season form showed resilience following a bitterly disappointing spring. His willingness to follow Nibali, and then attack the Italian champion, showed the confidence of a champion. His aggressive lines down the Civiglio showed that he has overcome his fear of high-speed descents. He won by 32 seconds, the largest winning margin at Lombardia since Andrea Tafi won by 2:19 over Fabian Jeker in 1996.

The victory, as the phrase on his arm states, was beautiful.

“Nibali attacked on the Sormano, something few riders would have done, and then we had a nice duel,” Pinot said. “To win in front of him, for me, it’s symbolic. It’s the dream finish.”

By winning Lombardia, Pinot added his name to an honor roll that includes Coppi and Bartali, Merckx and Moser, Hinault and Jalabert — cycling’s immortals.

Thibaut Pinot is not immortal. He’s a Grand Tour contender who is still yet to win a WorldTour stage race. But on a Saturday afternoon in Northern Italy, everything came together beautifully for cycling’s most mortal star.

The weekly spin is a column from our Editor at Large offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.

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