Thibaut Pinot has spoken about his unease with the use of corticosteroids in the professional peloton after revealing that he received an out-of-competition injection earlier this winter to treat an ongoing back issue.
In a long, wide-ranging interview with L’Equipe (opens in new tab), the Frenchman also expressed alarm at the lack of testing during the pandemic, and concern over the use of ketones by fellow riders.
Pinot revealed his injection was administered in hospital under a scanner in late November, as he continued to suffer the effects of his crash on the opening day of the Tour de France in August. He struggled through that Tour and aimed to bounce back at the Vuelta, only to abandon after two stages, with scans later revealing small cracks in his sacrum and pelvis that had been masked by a previous haemetoma.
After six weeks of rest, Pinot started training again in mid-November but the pain soon returned, and another scan revealed a lingering contusion.
"That’s why we took the decision to do what we should have done a long time ago, but which I always refused to," Pinot said.
"From an ethical point of view, I’ve always been against it. But we were in a period totally out of competition, in the middle of winter. It was truly with the goal of healing, of being treated. Never would I have done that between two races."
The issue of corticosteroids has come to prominence in the past few years after the Fancy Bear hacking group leaked documentation of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for riders to use certain drugs that are banned in competition, if not out of competition.
Some, as in the case of Bradley Wiggins – who received authorisation to be injected with triamcinolone ahead of his Grand Tour appearances between 2011 and 2013 – insist there is a legitimate medical need. However, others see a grey area and a chance to exploit the rules to use drugs that can have significant performance-enhancing qualities.
"Of course, it played with my head. When you have an injection or you use cortisone, the effects last for at least three weeks. Some do it just before races – out of competition, but the effect is there. I am completely opposed to all that, but cycling still operates at two speeds, I think," Pinot said.
"I had a lot of hope with [UCI President] David Lappartient, I believed it was sort of his thing. They banned tramadol, but it would have been good if they’d done the same with corticoids. A guy who has a TUE has no business being on a bike. They’re not fit for competition. I don’t understand that people race bikes on cortisone."
Later in the interview, Pinot elaborated on his stance: "If you need it, ok, but out of competition and you stop for four weeks."
It’s a stance that has been further informed by his recent injection. Such was the impact, it tempted Pinot to wonder, almost regretfully, what might have been in his career.
"When I see the effect the injection had on me, I tell myself that there are several races I would have finished,” he said, referring to the 2019 Tour de France, when he abandoned in tears on stage 19 while in contention for the overall victory, or the previous year’s Giro d’Italia, which he exited with bronchitis a day away from sealing a podium finish.
"But you shut yourself up because you abandon, you play the game, and you do things properly. That’s what gets to me most with all of this. You can get angry with the world, but I’ll stick to my own thing and I’ll finish my career like that. I also think about the new generation, about [David] Gaudu, [Valentin] Madouas… if they can be in a sport without all that, I think we’ll see a difference.”
Pinot also spoke more widely about doping in professional cycling. He expressed concern about the amount of testing being done amid the travel restrictions linked to the pandemic, and also regretted the fact that many teams aren’t part of the Movement for Credible Cycling, leaving different riders following different rules.
He suggested that since he turned professional in 2010, he’d hear whispers of the latest performance-enhancing product – “there’s always a new thing that comes along” – but insisted it had never crossed his mind to cross an ethical line. “Anyway, I think I’m too anxious, too stressy to mess around with that nonsense. If you told me to take this or that, I wouldn’t sleep at night."
The latest ‘thing’ to cause a stir has been ketones, which are legal in and out of competition but have attracted controversy due to certain reports of significant performance benefits.
Ketones are produced naturally by the liver but artificial ketones can be used as an additional energy source. They are banned under MPCC rules, but the sense of controversy has come from the mystery surrounding their use, with Jumbo-Visma the only team to publicly admit to using them.
“Why do riders continue to throw their bidons into the fields but keep the little containers of ketones in their pockets? I don’t understand,” Pinot said.
“It’s said that it helps you lost weight. The hardest thing about cycling isn’t doing six or seven hours on the bike, it’s your weight – slimming down without losing power. Certain studies say it drains your body of water, but if that’s the case, it’s already huge.
“Some riders are contacted on Instagram, solicited to buy ketones. Juniors, U23s, young riders who are alone and who absolutely want to turn pro, they could be tempted, and that shocks me.”
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.