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Thibaut Pinot: It was the right year to return to the Giro d'Italia

AIXENPROVENCE FRANCE FEBRUARY 16 Thibaut Pinot of France Team Groupama FDJ during the 5th Tour de La Provence 2020 Stage 4 a 1705km stage from Avignon to AixEnProvence TDLP letourdelaprovence TDLP2020 on February 16 2020 in AixEnProvence France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images
Thibaut Pinot of Groupama-FDJ will make the Giro d'Italia his 2021 Grand Tour focus (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

More often than not, team presentations are routine, even banal affairs, but Groupama-FDJ’s online event on Tuesday afternoon was enlivened by manager Marc Madiot’s ardent monologue in support of Thibaut Pinot, who had just confirmed that he would skip the Tour de France in 2021 in favour of the Giro d’Italia.

“Pinot is anything but what they say about him,” Madiot said. His voice rising: “Anything but what they say about him.”

Pinot has endured repeated misfortune in the Tour since his podium finish in 2014, most recently last Autumn, when his race was ruined by a crash on the opening stage in Nice. Although he persevered to reach Paris in 29th place, the maillot jaune felt further away than ever, with France’s last Tour champion Bernard Hinault suggesting that the 30-year-old "wasn’t made to win the Tour." 

Madiot didn’t take aim at any specific detractors during Tuesday’s speech, which echoed a similarly fervent intervention in Albi on the first rest day of the 2019 Tour, but he insisted that doubts about Pinot’s mental strength were unfair in the extreme.

“He has something that a lot of riders don’t have, and that’s commitment. He doesn’t necessarily always have the words to say it or express it, but he has something that many don’t have,” Madiot said, while Pinot sat silently alongside him.

“I don't know if he'll win the Tour of Italy one day, I don't know if he'll win the Tour de France one day, but one thing I'm sure of is that he'll try to do it. And as long as he has a number on his back, he’ll give everything he has to do it.”

Pinot’s decision to forgo the Tour in favour of the Giro had already been reported in France over the weekend, but his preference had probably already begun to crystallise while he struggled with a back injury through last year’s race. After abandoning the Tour while on the cusp of overall victory in 2019, Pinot had vowed to return the following year, but he appeared altogether more circumspect about the prospect following his latest ill-starred tilt at yellow last September.

The choice became more obvious after the Tour presentation in November, when a route featuring two time trials was unveiled, though one imagines sponsors Groupama and FDJ might still have preferred to see Pinot in action on home roads regardless of the parcours. 

Since winning at Porrentruy on his debut in 2012, after all, Pinot has missed the Tour just once – in 2018 when he was still recovering from the illness that forced him out of the Giro on the final weekend.

“It was a relief to know that my decision had been accepted. It took time, everybody had their interests,” Pinot said afterwards, according to AFP. “I felt it was the right year to return to the Giro given the routes of the Tour and Giro, and my last two complicated Tours. I needed to restart with a new programme and new objectives.”

Like French writer Stendhal, Pinot has always looked south of the Alps for inspiration. As an amateur, he won the Giro della Valle d’Aosta and one of the first major successes of his professional career came at the Settimana Lombarda in 2011. He placed fourth overall and won a stage on his Giro debut in 2017, and he won Il Lombardia and Milano-Torino the following year. Even in the aftermath of last Autumn’s Tour disappointment, he found himself tuning in to watch the Giro on television.

“The Giro is the only race where I was capable of watching a stage, even a sprint stage. I don’t know why, but there’s something about that race that makes me want to go there,” said Pinot. “The Giro will be important in my season and in my career.

Olympics not a factor

Pinot will begin his season at the Volta ao Algarve and will also line out at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Alps ahead of the Giro, although he noted that the rescheduled Tokyo Olympic Games had not been a factor in his decision to forgo the Tour. The men’s road race takes place just five days after the final stage of the Tour and it is not clear if quarantine rules will allow competitors to combine both races, but the Mélisey native has eyes only for the corsa rosa. “I just want to think about the Giro and not about the Olympics or the Vuelta or anything else,” he said.

While the route of the 2021 Giro d'Italia will not be presented until early February, a number of high-profile contenders have already confirmed their participation, including Simon Yates, Vincenzo Nibali, Remco Evenepoel and Mikel Landa, and Egan Bernal has also signalled his desire to compete.

In each of his two previous Giro appearances, Pinot remained in contention for overall victory deep into the third week, and although he spoke on Tuesday of putting “less pressure on the general classification,” he will surely expect to be competitive once again in Italy this May.

“I’m not the type to sit up and lose half an hour. I’ll do the Giro day by day and I’ll see,” he said. “The important thing is to fight and win races – to let myself go and stop calculating to the millimetre like I’ve done on certain races, and [instead] express myself like I know how, with my qualities and my defects.”

During Tuesday’s presentation, Pinot pledged to return to the Tour in 2022, noting that his best performances had come after he missed the race in 2018. 

On the subject of the critics tackled by Madiot, meanwhile, Pinot struck an equable note. “I’ve realised that I was wasting my time trying to react or defend myself,” he said. “I prefer to focus on racing. I'm impatient to get back to enjoying myself.”