Thibaut Pinot’s descending cost him another victory

France's tragic hero should have won stage 9 of the Tour, just like he should have won other races in the past.

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Matt Wragg is a cycling photographer and writer who’s long worked for our MTB-focused sister publication, Pinkbike. Matt loves his road racing, too, and he approaches the sport from a slightly different perspective – that of a mountain biker. After watching Thibaut Pinot narrowly miss out on a stage win at the Tour on Sunday, Matt had some perspective he was keen to share.

I’ll admit it: I am charmed by Thibaut Pinot. We all love a struggler; Pinot is the antithesis to Tadej Pogačar who makes the incredible things he does almost look too easy. We may admire Pogačar, but we relate to Pinot.

His resurgence at the Tour of the Alps and Tour de Suisse this season had me shouting at the screen, willing him on. It was a joy to watch, everything a sports fan could hope for. Yet on Sunday, on the way to Chatel, Pinot had me shouting for the opposite reason.

Not to take anything away from Bob Jungels’ incredible ride, but I believe Pinot could and should have won stage 9. He was tearing chunks out of Jungels’ lead every time the road pointed upwards, until the descent off the Col de la Croix. By the time he got to the final climb Pinot didn’t have enough left in the tank to close the gap to Jungels, and that was avoidable. What’s worse is that it isn’t the first time he has done this in 2022. 

Rewind to the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var this spring, and the final stage to Blausasc. Coming into a late descent, Pinot had a healthy lead over the leaders, until Nairo Quintana attacked. He couldn’t catch Pinot on the last part of the climb, but once the descent got into the switchbacks he was gaining seconds in each and every corner. 

If you watch where he passes Pinot (see the video below), pause and have a look at the lines each rider takes. Quintana is glorious to watch; precise, smooth and tight. Braking early and cleanly, he sets up wide, opens the brakes, tips the bike in and lets the bike run. Clipping the apex he runs all the way out to the edge on the exit. Riding like that makes it easy to carry speed. Maybe you put in a couple turns of the pedals on the exit to get up to pace, but you can almost relax when things are flowing that well.

Then there was Pinot. It looked like he was trying to draw a square in each corner, coming in way too deep, braking hard, dropping down the face of the corner, then having to turn again to exit. Because he is losing ground to Quintana, he then sprints out of the corner to catch up. And those little sprints are the killer.

When the road flattens off, Pinot is blown and falls out of the chase. Which is exactly what happened again on stage 9 of the Tour, Pinot dropping behind Carlos Verona and Jonathan Castroviejo.

This past weekend offered a great counterpoint to Pinot’s descending – the Mountain Bike World Cup passed through Switzerland too, stopping in Lenzerheide. If you can, take a moment to watch Amaury Pierron’s winning run (see the video below) and try to appreciate that while it may look wild, he is more or less in control. He’s playing with the limits of control, which is what makes it so special, but it is all calculated risk.

Pierron’s team is way smaller than even a Continental-level road team, but he works with technical coaches, line spotters, and line comparison software to perfect his race runs. The very reason he can ride at that level is that he puts the time in, training consistently at an incredibly high speed to try and get as comfortable as possible riding way out on the ragged edge. It seems to be a common attitude in road cycling to accept poor descending as a fact of life, rather a skill that could be worked on.

Shooting with a former triathlete on gravel a few years ago, it was terrifying to watch. Nobody had ever told her that you don’t need to rigidly grip the bike; that you can relax and let it move under you. Every time the bike went in a direction she tried to follow it. She couldn’t let it flow and in the end we drove her most of the ride.

Take Matej Mohorič’s dropper-post-equipped Milan-San Remo-winning descent from earlier this year. Most of the comments I saw were focused on the potential aero advantage and risk of faster descending. Not one person I saw talked about the advantages of additional hip mobility for bike handling. 

That is precisely why dropper posts exist. One of the basic tenets of mountain biking is that when you get to the top of the hill, you drop your saddle to enjoy the way back down. As people started racing what was to become modern mountain bike enduro, clever souls thought that there must be a more efficient way of doing this than stopping and dropping the post by hand. Around a decade ago the dropper post emerged as a must-have for anybody going trail riding, and they are now ubiquitous in all corners of sport. 

Maybe the phrase “hip mobility” is overly fancy language, yet the idea behind it is as old as mountain biking. Once you begin to understand that your centre of gravity can have more influence on where your bike goes than turning a handlebar, that you need to get the braking done before you turn the wheels into the corner, and that opening a corner is not only faster but feels better, then those extra millimetres of freedom make sense.

None of this is black magic or tricks of genetics. Of course there are those of us more gifted than others, but just because you are probably not the next Amaury Pierron doesn’t mean you can’t learn to be really good at handling a bike. After all, you’d feel pretty rubbish missing out on a Tour de France stage win because you hadn’t worked on basic bike skills.

But maybe that is exactly why we love Thibaut Pinot. Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, how many times in this life is the biggest obstacle in our path ourselves? If we got to where Pinot was, we’d make a mess of it too.

Although it is impossible to predict what will happen when the race reaches the high mountains, the wonderful thing about Pinot is that no matter what, we know he will go down swinging. And I will be cheering or crying along when he does.

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