It's a strange state of affairs for a French rider of his level to prefer riding abroad, but he makes no bones about his love of all things Italian.
After struggling to back up his 2014 Tour podium, his personal preference in the last couple of years has been to take part in the Giro d’Italia, where he won a stage and finished fourth overall in 2017. He was well placed to crack the podium the following year, only to crumble with illness one day from the end. Still, he bounced back in the second half of the season to win Il Lombardia and Milano-Torino, not to mention the two Grand Tour stages over in Spain at the Vuelta.
As far as this season goes, the swarthy Frenchman has been at the pointy end of affairs in each of the stage races he has ridden. However, when the concurrence is of WorldTour level, then things have been more complicated. At Tirreno-Adriatico, and then again in Catalunya, he appeared to be missing that vital ingredient to follow the best riders, but, as each race progressed, so did his form. Basically, he went from watching the others leave him behind in the first of the uphill finishes to being a part of the battle at the end of a week's racing.
Then, at the Critérium du Dauphiné, that characteristic was turned on its head when he emerged as the strongest rider on the first occasion when the GC favourites opened up and tested each other. With a month to go to the Tour, it was looking good for Pinot. Yet, being the person everyone was looking to, he faded, losing seconds here and there, and, as the race reached its final weekend, all that promise came to nothing.
And that's one of the issues with trying to figure out what Pinot is going to do when he turns up at a race. There's an inconsistency to his form that goes from being brilliantly aggressive – like when he won Lombardy – to having a disastrous time trial, or a bad day in the mountains, or abandoning altogether.
Everyone knows that riding for the GC in any race is about being present, always paying attention, and not having a terrible day. There's also the mental aspects of keeping everything together and not getting too emotional or excited when feeling good. Sometimes it's best to save energy and efforts for when it really matters. That emotional control seems to be something that Pinot hasn't quite mastered yet.
Maybe he never will, or maybe he doesn't want to, since it's part of how he sees and feels racing, and since it brings him, and his followers, massive highs. However, it also means massive lows, and it means a certain scepticism when you hear talk of this being the year he'll really challenge for a Grand Tour victory.
It'll be interesting to see how Pinot handles the pressure of returning to the Tour de France as one of the home favourites because, in the past, that stress hasn't done him any good. Now he's older, more experienced, more confident in his abilities, and settled into the family atmosphere that makes Groupama-FDJ different from other WorldTour teams, maybe it'll go well. However, the team behind him will have their work cut out keeping everything together.
Just understanding what's needed to get the best out of Pinot is, it seems, a question they have been asking themselves, hoping – rather than expecting – to find the answers.
“We have worked together to establish a more attentive approach with Thibaut, so that all of us – the managers, the trainers, the directors – talk more,” directeur sportif Yvon Madiot tells us.
“This winter we set out his objectives for this year. We, the team, had asked that Thibaut do more home races and he also wanted to return to doing more French races instead of racing abroad. So we decided to do that, with the intention of concentrating on the Tour de France. It has been a few years since he went there in good condition.
“His choosing to race abroad was a mix of loving Italy and avoiding the pressures he faced at home. For sure, he'll face more pressure after this Dauphiné, but he likes to race with his heart, when he feels good, with lots of emotion, and he wants to return to riding for the French fans,” says Madiot.
Pinot's 2019 programme
- Tour de la Provence (February 14-17): 4th
- Tour du Haut Var (February 22-24): 1st
- Ardèche Classic (March 2): 12th
- Industria & Artigianato (March 10): 31st
- Tirreno-Adriatico (March 13-19): 5th
- Volta a Catalunya (March 25-31): 11th
- Tour de l'Ain (May 24-26): 1st
- Critérium du Dauphiné (June 9-16): 5th
Pre-Tour race days: 35 (of which 22 WorldTour)
UCI World Ranking: 5th
Yvon Madiot’s older brother, Marc, is the long-standing general manager of the FDJ team, and jokes that managing Pinot has hastened the spread of grey hairs across his head.
Madiot is certainly someone who becomes emotionally invested in his riders. Images of him hanging out of the team car, roaring encouragement at Pinot as the then-22-year-old soloed to his first Tour de France stage win in the Jura, are iconic. When that victory was followed two years later by a podium place in Paris, he must felt a first Tour title starting to come into focus. But he has had to be patient, even if it has meant being without his star rider for overwhelmingly the most important race for his team and sponsor.
“He's a complex rider,” Madiot acknowledges. “What does that mean for me? Well, more grey hairs!”
The decision to return to the Tour, he insists, was made mutually.
“It was a bit of both. Firstly, it was him, then the team. He is French, and when you're French, the Tour de France is the most important moment of the year. In the context of things, he had to return, and he also very much wanted to race again in France.
“Essentially, when you're riding the Tour de France, you say, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ On the other hand, if you're at home sitting on the sofa in July, you say, ‘Shit, I wish I was at the Tour de France.’”
As for how to manage the pressure that has hamstrung Pinot in the past, the message is clear: “We have to let things come from him, and not push him.
“We'll see what happens. Firstly, he really wants to be there, and that's the most important thing. At the beginning of his career, it was difficult for him to handle the stress. We've talked a lot with him about that kind of stress, but I think he really wants to be at the Tour,” says Madiot.
It’s hard to remember, but Thibaut Pinot once talked about following the path that saw Bradley Wiggins become the first British rider to win the Tour de France – of developing slowly, with method and focus. You have to wonder what happened to those intentions.
You would be crazy to bet against him producing something special on one stage, and Groupama-FDJ have a decent squad. But a relative lack of support in the mountains and his emotional temperament could be where the Pinot dreams come unstuck. Or maybe they won't.