On the slopes of the Colle Aperto a few kilometres from the finish of il Lombardia, the fans crowded in on the road in their hundreds. They’d been there waiting for hours – not to watch Tadej Pogačar’s ascension to a third straight win, but to catch a glimpse of Thibaut Pinot about eight minutes later. As he passed, police with their arms linked tried in vain to hold back a chanting, cheering horde: the Thibaut Pinot ‘ultras’, saying goodbye to their hero in his last professional race.
Over 14 seasons – all of them with incarnations of the Groupama-FDJ team – Pinot has become one of the most beloved figures in the sport, and his final year has been a long and fitting farewell. There was his last Giro d’Italia, where he rode with his heart on his sleeve and narrowly missed a couple of stage wins as a result, finishing fifth overall and with the climber’s jersey as compensation. There was his last Tour de France, where he flirted with the top 10 on GC and, on home roads, was the emotional nucleus of the 20th stage. And then, on Saturday, il Lombardia – his final race, the site of what Pinot calls his “greatest victory” in 2018. You can say goodbye for a year, but there has to be the last one.
Pinot’s career is one of big wins and big losses, and will be remembered equally fondly for both. The Frenchman first rose to prominence at the 2012 Tour de France when – as the youngest rider in the race – he rode to a stage win accompanied by the throaty roars of team director Marc Madiot in the car beside him. Two years later, Pinot was firmly established as the next great hope of French cycling by finishing third overall at the Tour, snaring the white jersey as a bonus. In 2015, he again tasted success, this time on Bastille Day with a stage win on one of cycling’s most iconic climbs, l’Alpe d’Huez.
For many years of his long career, both glory and heartbreak coexisted. In the 2019 Tour de France, Pinot and compatriot Julian Alaphilippe electrified their home Tour, with Pinot taking stage honours on the Tourmalet and Alaphilippe occupying yellow for more than two weeks. Both campaigns fell apart on the Alpine stage 19, with Pinot abruptly hobbled by a muscle tear in his left thigh, climbing into the team car and sobbing in the front seat with his face in his hands. Hours later, a valiant Alaphilippe slipped off the back of an Egan Bernal raid, a hailstorm unleashed a landslide, and a million French hearts broke.
In the case of Pinot’s departure, the dramatic end to his 2019 Tour was doubly cruel because of its echoes in the past. A year earlier at the Giro d’Italia, Pinot had looked equally dangerous and was sitting in third on GC as late as the 20th stage before he was felled by pneumonia, limping across the finish line surrounded by grave-faced teammates and withdrawing before the start of the ceremonial final stage.
The loyalty and admiration of his teammates was a constant throughout Pinot’s career, even with the rise of David Gaudu as Groupama-FDJ’s GC star. This was, in part, because of the team’s understanding and appreciation of the unique character Pinot brought to the team’s makeup. Where other riders pursued marginal gains and technical advance, Pinot leaned further into feeling. That gave his efforts an increasingly doomed quality, but endeared him to fans who admired his humanity and charismatic riding style, which seemingly dated back to a bygone era.
With that growing admiration, however, came added scrutiny – something that didn’t always sit well with the introverted homebody in the spotlight. As a featured rider in Netflix’s Tour de France: Unchained, the producers coaxed an agonised truth out of him: “Sometimes I wish I was less popular and more successful.”
Pinot’s popularity was, paradoxically, bolstered by glimpses of the insular life that he shares with partner Charlotte Patat, catalogued on the Instagram profile ‘kim.goat’. In the bucolic surrounds of his little village – the town of Mélisey in Haute-Saône, where he grew up – Pinot tends to a farm with a growing menagerie. There are goats, of course, but there are also highland cows, donkeys, chickens, and a pair of black and white calves of a local breed. Fittingly, his exit from the sport coincided with a new arrival: a goat called Vittoria, given to him by il Lombardia’s race organisers.
On Saturday, Pinot climbed to the finish of his career in Lombardy, through hundreds of fans that had made a pilgrimage to be there for him. Songs were sung, flags were flown, and tears were shed. “During the race today, I said to myself: ‘Today I am unable to win, but I already won it.’ … I had a few questions before coming here, but in the end, I won’t regret it because it was a great party,” an emotional Pinot reflected at the finish. “I will think about this special day very often … I am certainly not world champion, but I think that I really have the best fans in the world.”
On the inside of Pinot’s right arm is a tattooed line in Italian: ‘Solo la vittoria è Bella’ (only victory is beautiful). Over the years he’s worn it, it’s occasionally been visible in finish-line victory salutes, but mostly seems to be a message for Pinot himself instead of others. It was there when he celebrated his one and only monument win, at this race half a decade ago – before his career was brought to the precipice by back injuries sustained in the 2020 Tour de France, and before his ascension to a doomed, beloved hero of the sport was assured. Back when it seemed like the stars might align for Thibaut Pinot in ways that they mostly didn’t.
In the process he’s matured, become more nuanced, introspective and philosophical – and in the process, I think, realised an important truth: that beauty comes from more than just success on a bike. In the birth of a calf, in the quiet of the off-season, in giving your all even if – especially if – it’s not always enough.
Looking back at his palmarès – the wins, the losses, everything in between – it becomes clear why Thibaut Pinot has left such a deep impression on the sport. The triumph of Pinot’s career isn’t the beauty of his victories – although they were beautiful. It is that he demonstrated something more profound: the beauty of trying, failing, and then trying again.
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