Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) wins stage 7 of the 2022 Tour de Suisse.

Should Thibaut Pinot put his GC ambitions behind him once and for all?

Queen stage victory in Switzerland confirmed Pinot’s comeback after a few tough years. What’s changed? He’s hunting stages not jerseys.

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Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) took his second victory of 2022 on the queen stage of the Tour de Suisse, winning from the day’s breakaway just as he did at the Tour of the Alps. Once the next French GC hope, Pinot seems to have found his mojo as a stage hunter this season.

After claiming a hard-fought ticket for the breakaway in the first hour of Saturday’s stage, the shrunken peloton (only 84 riders started the stage) allowed the 14 out front a generous gap. They still had a comfortable cushion at the foot of the hors-catégorie climb to Malbun (12.6 km at 8.7%), and as others were succumbing to the sweltering conditions, Ion Izagirre (Cofidis) left his breakaway companions behind 10 km from the finish.

Pinot was on the back foot, but in characteristic resilient style, he kept plugging away at his own pace, no panic, no sudden surges, until he reached Izagirre’s wheel. With the Cofidis man feeling the heat (literally), Pinot didn’t wait around before putting the Basque climber out of his misery with a final acceleration.

After 196 kilometres, four categorised climbs, 3,190 metres of elevation gain and two kilometres solo, Pinot celebrated a glowing victory that couldn’t have been better timed.

He’s back. No doubt.

“This is great for me. I wanted that win and went to get it myself,” Pinot said after stage 7. “By finishing with the best on Friday, I knew I was in good form. 

“This confirms all the work I have done since the start of the season. This is good in view of the Tour de France. The goal is to win stages there too.” 

All being well, the Frenchman will be headed to home roads in a couple of weeks, via Copenhagen, for his first run at the Tour de France since 2019. In that balmy pre-pandemic edition, Pinot took a popular stage win on the Col du Tourmalet and went into the final week looking good for a top-five finish in Paris, which would have been his best performance since taking third in 2014. Sadly, he was forced to climb off on stage 19, and the devastation he felt that day was shared far and wide.

King of the Tourmalet.

2020 was rife with what-ifs, and Pinot must have felt it acutely when looking back at his early-season form: seventh at the Tour de la Provence, fifth at Paris-Nice, and then second at the rescheduled Critérium du Dauphiné where soon-to-be Tour-winner Tadej Pogačar came fourth. 

The Tour de France was next, but a crash in the first week left Pinot struggling with back pain for the remainder of the race. Remarkably, Pinot started the Vuelta a España a few weeks later, but only finished two stages before putting a rollercoaster of a season behind him.

In 2021, The Frenchman only logged 38 race days, none of them at Grand Tours. Instead he focused on short stage races, getting in a few breakaways, and the less conspicuous one-day races. It was a long and mentally challenging journey back to form, one that didn’t end until the Tour of the Alps this April.

He won there overall in 2018, but he took a different approach this year. After losing time early in the week, Pinot found success via a breakaway on the final stage, overturning the disappointment of second the day before and breaking a 1,007-day dry spell.

Just look at his face.

He went on to play among his old friends the GC riders in the mountains at the Tour de Romandie, before setting his sights on the Tour de Suisse, the final stepping stone to the Tour. Along the way, he stirred up the age-old conversation about France’s hope for home rider victory on the biggest stage.

And yet, this year he’s riding differently. He’s only really featured in the GC competition once – eighth at Tirreno-Adriatico – and has seemed content to float around the back of the peloton, lose time, and look out for opportunities to go on the attack.

The Pinot we’ve seen hunting and winning stages this year even looks rather different to the old Pinot riding conservatively for GC. He’s more relaxed, he seems happier and he even looks lighter, unburdened by the stress of marginal gains, not to mention the risk; so much of bike racing is out of the riders’ control.

In January, Pinot’s return to the Tour was announced by Groupama-FDJ, and he himself mentioned the overall podium. But more recently, he’s pointed to the polka dots of the mountains classification as a more likely target, something he said he dreamt of as a boy. The best way to achieve that? Breakaways and stage wins.

The 32-year-old has seven GC titles to his name, all of them at fairly minor races and the last being the 2019 Tour de l’Ain. Sure, he’d love a yellow jersey, but his love-hate relationship with the Tour de France has done him damage in the past, and Pinot is at his best when he’s attacking solo in the high mountains. Something he will not be allowed to do if he’s anywhere near the GC favourites this July.

There’s a chance, of course, that his goals might change come the Tour. Maybe all this talk of stages and polka dots is an effort to lull potential GC rivals into a false sense of security? This writer for one would sooner see Pinot targeting stages than putting himself through the mental turmoil of defending a possible podium. 

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