We didn’t talk enough about Bruno

Three years ago, Bruno Armirail was an escapee from a different COVID-affected peloton.

Armirail, in the process of being unhitched from the race lead.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 24.05.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Three days after Bruno Armirail (Groupama-FDJ) rode into the lead of the Giro d’Italia, he was ridden out of it on the most climb-heavy stage of the race. Coming unhitched with 10 km remaining, the long, lean Frenchman chucked his bottles to the side of the road to shed some ballast, but could only watch as the race rode off on him. By stage’s end, he’d shipped almost four and a half minutes to the stage-winning João Almeida and Geraint Thomas – and with that, the maglia rosa passed back onto the shoulders of the veteran Welshman. Game over.

It was always going to be this way; it was just a matter of time. Armirail now sits in seventh on GC, and is almost certain to slide much further. With each coming day, his brief period in the spotlight as leading man on the stage of global cycling will feel less like reality and more like a fever dream for the rider from Occitanie, France. Commentators grasping for facts about the race leader will be on steadier footing again.

Because there don’t seem to be many stories about Bruno Armirail, really. He’s in his sixth full season at Groupama-FDJ, catching their eye with some diligently unspectacular results and an U23 national time trial championship in 2014. In 2022, he pulled on the tricolour as winner of France’s elite TT, too. Otherwise his job is simple – help Thibaut, help David, help the team to its bigger objectives. A cog in the machine, helping tell other stories. 

Until he’s not.

For a few days, the domestique was the centre of attention.

There is one story about Bruno Armirail – just Bruno Armirail – that’s pretty instructive, though. Cast your mind back to early 2020, when COVID was first starting to take hold. A mysterious virus had spread from China to a few villages in Italy and then, jetted to Abu Dhabi via the vast international entourage of the UAE Tour. Suddenly the race ground chaotically to a halt, with teams hastily locked away in a hotel on Yas Island.

Think back to that time; you can imagine the fear, the uncertainty. COVID was a still-unknown enemy, and local officials were swift and uncompromising in their actions. Bruno Armirail was nursing a minor cold, and they weren’t going to let it slide. He was hauled off by the local police to a rapidly improvised quarantine facility in a disused hospital, where he would spend the next four days in solitary confinement.  

According to Marc Madiot – Groupama-FDJ’s team boss – “[Armirail] was tested, retested, retested and every time the result was negative. He ended up wondering what the hell he was doing there.” Increasingly agitated, the rider pleaded to be let out. “And then, suddenly, without explanation, they let him go,” Madiot told l’Equipe at the time.

Armirail had built a minor reputation as a breakaway rider – that’s how he got into the lead of the Giro d’Italia three years later, remember – but this would be his strangest, most dystopian escape yet. Without any means of communication, wearing just a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, he found himself in an unfamiliar country after days confined inside. He made his way to the quarantined race hotel, but officials wouldn’t let him in. He couldn’t get his belongings out, either. So he did the only thing he could think to do – head to the airport, board the next flight to Paris, travel south to his home in Pau, and try to come to terms with his disorienting and distressing ordeal.

As it turned out, he was almost one of the lucky ones. The rest of Groupama-FDJ dodged COVID but were stuck in the hotel for another week, going increasingly loopy. UAE Team Emirates had a handful of cases – of them, Fernando Gaviria was in hospital for 18 days, as was Max Richeze, who missed the birth of his daughter back home. For them, their race – and a chunk of the season – was pretty significantly derailed. Richeze’s now retired, while just months later, Gaviria was in headlines and medical journals as one of the first ever confirmed re-infections. He’s now three infections down, and hasn’t been quite the same since.

Armirail enjoying his time in pink.

Three years later, you can draw similar parallels to Armirail’s latest brush with the limelight. In many ways the world’s moved on, but COVID is still here, as a flurry of withdrawals from the Giro d’Italia have shown. Geraint Thomas first inherited the maglia rosa from race favourite Remco Evenepoel, who left the race after a positive test; just two of Evenepoel’s team remain in the race. In turn, Armirail took the race lead from Thomas, as a depleted, exhausted and sickly peloton let the breakaway up the road just so they could have a soft day. It’s taken 16 days of racing for the GC battle to really heat up, and there are almost certainly some twists and turns to come – and probably some more COVID positives. 

Against that backdrop, there’s something fitting about Bruno Armirail, the COVID escape artist, coming to prominence again for kinda the same reason. He won’t be remembered as a key animator of the 2023 Giro d’Italia, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a story worth telling in his journey into pink and out of it again – and its echoes of a different time, when a major storyline in a global pandemic was a little bike race in the Middle East.

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