After four months on the sidelines, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ) returns to racing this week at the Tour de Limousin, optimistic that the injury issues that have plagued him for the last year are a thing of the past.
The Frenchman sustained a back injury in an opening-day crash at the 2020 Tour de France which, after struggling on to Paris and then starting the Vuelta a España, became a major problem over the winter.
He received a cortisone injection to help treat the issue and then began his 2021 campaign in February, but it became clear at the Tour of the Alps that he wasn’t in shape to take on his target of the Giro d’Italia.
Pinot hasn’t raced since, and had to put any competitive targets firmly on hold as he attempted to heal his back for good. Now, though, he is back, returning to the peloton in the opening stage of Limousin on Tuesday.
"I’m eager to pin a race number on again," he said in an interview with L'Equipe.
"The legs are pretty good, I think. Based on the quality of my training and the numbers I’m producing, I feel that things are going well."
Pinot revealed that, in the two rough months following the Tour of the Alps, he had "mentally prepared" himself for the rest of the 2021 season being a write-off.
He was feeling pain in his back when he was inflating his tyres, never mind trying to climb mountains on his bike.
"Up to mid-June it was very hard because I saw no improvement. I told myself the goal would be to go again in 2022. I’d put a cross through this season," he said.
However, by mid-July, and a tentative training camp in Tignes, things were different.
"For me, the fear since the start were the long climbs. In April I’d even have to stop for pauses on a 10km climb to relieve my back. In Tignes, I managed to put together hour-long climbs, several times a day, so I understood things were getting better," he said.
"In terms of intensity, I wanted to test myself and reassure myself that things were indeed going better, and I did race-pace intensity numbers that I’d not managed to push for nearly 10 months."
Pinot acknowledged that it was "an error" to limp on during last year’s Tour and then train to try and be competitive at the Vuelta.
He ended up compensating for the injury and was riding "totally lopsided", which threw his whole system out of kilter and compounded his problems. After backing off his riding in the spring, he began to notice the benefits.
"There wasn’t one miracle solution," he said.
"I’ve done so many things and seen so many people, each of whom has brought a brick to the building, and that’s what has resolved the problem. I gained one per cent each day - not big strides from one day to the next.
"In the past, I wanted to save face. I’d try to simply get to five hours of riding without having any problems. I didn’t do any efforts or sprints, I’d avoid certain roads, and I’d protect the back as much as possible. Now I don’t worry about that. Last week I did my best time on the Ballon d’Alsace since I’ve been pro. Since mid-July I’ve enjoyed almost every training ride."
The Tour du Limousin begins on Tuesday and features four stages of undulating terrain in central France.
Pinot is eager to stress that just finishing the race, after so long out and so long since he was last competitive, would represent its own success. However, he has also been keeping his competitive instincts locked up for the last few months and is eager to let loose.
"I’ve missed fighting for victory, and knowing why you train so hard. I’ve always said I do this sport to win races, so training for months for nothing was frustrating," he said.
"I want to show I’m still here, because people have talked a lot since last year, saying I’m on holiday, enjoying life, having barbecues, that I don’t have the right mentality - loads of stupid things like that. I still have some pride, a bit of ego, and I want to show who I am."
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