‘France might have to wait another 35 years for a home winner’ – Thibaut Pinot skips the Tour
Thibaut Pinot will not be at the start line of the 2021 Tour de France. Resultantly, the mantle of the ‘Great French Hope’ will be assumed by another rider this year. Who, if any, can rise to the challenge at the national race of France? Julian Alaphilippe? Romain Bardet? David Gaudu? Tom Owen investigates.
France's Thibaut Pinot, in his team car, reacts after quitting the Tour during the nineteenth stage of the 106th edition of the Tour de France
Pinot’s presence at the Tour has been a major storyline for the past two years. He has looked better than he ever has in his career, particularly in 2019 when a left thigh tear cruelly ruled him out of contention while sitting just 20 seconds down on eventual winner, Egan Bernal. The scenes of the 30-year-old crying as he climbed into the team Groupama-FDJ car are hard to forget.
In contrast to the slowly waning powers of Romain Bardet, who was the unfortunate rider saddled with the ‘Great French Hope’ tag before him, Pinot has got better and better (and subsequently had to carry more and more of a burden) in recent years. He has been excellent value for it, and Le Tour this year will be poorer for his absence.
It’s hard to understand just how important it is to the big French teams, Groupama and AG2R La Mondiale, to have a Frenchman flying the flag for their sponsors at the national race of France. And of course, the French media cannot help itself but be whipped into a frenzy of excitement every year, heaping pound after pound of pressure onto the shoulders of whichever poor sod’s turn it is to be the chosen one.
With Pinot skipping the Tour, who might his replacement be at the top of the home-rider pecking order? David Gaudu was fantastic last season, particularly at La Vuelta which he started as – nominally, at least – Pinot’s support rider. Pinot limped through only two full stages of that race before the mantle was passed to Gaudu. The pressure felt by a rider at La Vuelta going for stage wins simply does not compare to being in the centre of the circus, however.
Groupama notably left behind Arnaud Démare last year, who was arguably the fastest sprinter in the world at that moment in time, in favour of a squad wholly built around Pinot. Had Pinot won the race, it would have been lauded as a masterstroke. As it transpired, it came out more like a missed opportunity to salvage something from the wreckage.
Philippe Gilbert of Belgium and Team Lotto Soudal / Arnaud Demare of France and Team Groupama
Image credit: Getty Images
If Marc Madiot decides in 2021 to place all his eggs in the sprinter’s basket, Gaudu will probably still make the Tour squad, but he’ll struggle to make any sort of GC impact against the mono-focused super-teams.
Might Bardet pick things up again for one final time? It seems unlikely. He has moved to a team of stage-hunters, the newly-christened Team DSM which, as Sunweb, enlivened nearly every stage of the 2020 edition of Le Tour with its riders’ attacking derring-do. Couple that with Bardet’s growth as a one-day racer, and one would think it more likely to see Bardet focus on the likes of Strade Bianche, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia than put himself through another fruitless GC tilt at Le Tour.
Guillaume Martin put in a fantastic ride in the 2020 edition of Le Tour, but on a small team like Cofidis it’s far fetched to expect anything other than a respectable top ten. One bad day in the crosswinds or a mechanical after all his team-mates have been dropped would be enough to kibosh any serious hopes he might harbour.
And then of course, there is Julian Alaphilippe, the most intriguing riddle in French cycling. Perhaps the most tantalising prospect in the sport today. He has shown he can time trial well, he has shown he can defend yellow almost single-handedly. What he has not shown, yet, is the sort of myopic focus – almost a quality of dullness – that is required to win a three-week tour.
To put it another way, if Alaphilippe has a weakness it could be that he is just a little bit too interesting. He loves winning bike races so much, being the first to cross the line or the one who kicks it all off in the final, that he might not ever win the biggest race of them all.
At this rate, France might have another 35 years to wait for their next home winner of Le Tour.