As the gruppetto rolled across the finish line in Cervinia on Saturday afternoon, many faces were creased into broad smiles of relief that the worst of their labours on this Giro d'Italia had finally come to an end. The most elite passenger aboard this particular bus, however, wore an expression of a very different hue. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was masked in suffering as he leant over his handlebars, his chest heaving amid incessant coughs.
After descending the mountain, Pinot was reportedly taken to hospital to be treated for exhaustion, dehydration and respiratory problems. It remains to be seen whether he will be in any state to complete his Giro in Rome on Sunday afternoon.
Groupama-FDJ director Martial Gayant later confirmed to France Televisions that Pinot would not take the start of the final stage in Rome, choosing to abandon the race after spending the evening under medical observation at hospital in Aosta. The team said in an earlier Twitter update that the rider was suffering from dehydration and fever.
Pinot had begun the Giro's penultimate stage in third place overall, buoyed by a gritty display on the tappone to Bardonecchia the previous afternoon. At the start in Susa, he had spoken optimistically of retaining a podium place in the face of a likely offensive from Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana).
Come the day's penultimate climb, the Col de Saint-Pantaléon, the tone of his entire race had changed. As Astana set the tempo at the head of the peloton, Pinot was floundering off the rear. His teammates Steve Morabito, Sebastien Reichenbach and Jeremy Roy dropped back to come to the aid of their leader.
Gels were passed up from the team car, as Pinot's pedalling slowed almost to a halt. After straining every sinew to keep pace with the best through the final week, he had nothing left. It was already clear that there was no way back.
The gap was already at two minutes and growing in ever-increasing instalments when Roy slung an encouraging arm around Pinot. By the summit of the Saint-Pantaléon, Pinot was already 12 minutes behind the pink jersey group. By day's end, he had dropped to 16th place overall, 43:46 down on maglia rosa Chris Froome (Team Sky). It wasn't supposed to end like this.
A clearly ill Pinot was in no state to speak to his teammates or soigneurs at the finish line, far less put his disappointment into words for the waiting scrum of reporters. It was left to Roy and Reichenbach to speak on his behalf.
"We knew that Thibaut had been suffering for some time," Roy said. "He went beyond his limits all week. When your body says 'stop,' you can't go beyond your limits immeasurably. It was terrible to watch, but all respect to him for finishing the stage, because it was a calvaire [an ordeal]. He was in agony on the bike."
Pinot has endured more heartbreak than happiness at the Tour de France over the years, but he had appeared to find a more amenable environment south of the Alps, placing a sparkling fourth in his Giro debut a year ago. He looked set to better that showing this time around, though he had betrayed signs of suffering during a subdued time trial in Rovereto and again in Thursday's summit finish at Pratonevoso.
"I had a bad feeling this morning," Roy admitted. "But that's sport. There are highs and lows. Today was not a good one."
Atop the Jafferau on Friday evening, Pinot had paid a glowing tribute to his teammate Reichenbach's help during their 80-kilometre pursuit of Froome. On Saturday afternoon, the Swiss rider was again by his leader's side in the Alps, albeit in wholly different circumstances.
"We didn't really talk," Reichenbach said, his voice low. "We just needed to make it to the finish, and that's what we did."
Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot was not on hand in Cervinia, but he expressed his support for Pinot in an interview with L'ÉquipeTV.
"We win together and we lose together," he said. "We know that cycling is a hard sport, cruel and difficult. You have to accept the bad moments in order to live the moments of joy more intensely."
Pinot's teammate William Bonnet, who abandoned the Giro on Friday, posted a tribute to his leader on Instagram. Alongside a photograph of Reichenbach, Roy and Morabito aiding Pinot, Bonnet wrote: "None of your teammates regret the sacrifices, the efforts made to try to reach our objective. We would have signed on to support you for the same result [as today]. Our human adventure is worth a lot more than a podium."