Two weeks ago, Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe electrified the Tour de France together, riding a two-man breakaway that put Alaphilippe back in the yellow jersey and positioning Pinot as France’s best chance for a Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
That was the high point of the Tour for me because it was also the high point for France. Every Tour champion is special, but few things can animate an entire country like a French Tour champion. Pinot and Alaphilippe have been rockstars in France for the last three weeks — Alaphilippe a swashbuckling man of the people, and Pinot a brilliant and emotional climbing specialist willing to tear his body apart to win.
Both were on a run of form that has been one of the few things to make Team Sky/Ineos look wobbly in the last near-decade. When they weren’t racing, they were being mobbed by fans and journalists and photographers who wanted to absorb just the aura of potential French champions.
Then on Friday, on the penultimate day in the high mountains when Pinot was expected to attempt a Tour-winning move, he mysteriously abandoned. The cameras cut to Pinot looking panicked up the stage’s early Category 3 climb — usually a laughable challenge to Pinot — and getting his left leg re-bandaged by Tour doctors. On the broadcast it was suggested the he may have gotten stung by a bee. His team, Groupama-FDJ, eventually released a statement saying Pinot had a muscular tear that had made it difficult to walk the night before the stage. He must have been in some pain, given that his teammates rode right by him, patting him on the back as if they knew what he had been wrestling with.
Pinot attempted to continue riding the stage on his own, though he was quickly losing time to both rivals and non-contenders. His body language was miserable — he was wiggling in his seat, bobbing his head up and down, clearly sobbing — until finally a teammate came back, put his arm around Pinot, and provided just enough support to convince him that his magical Tour was over.
It’s over for Thibaut Pinot who suffers too much. Extremely sad.— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 26, 2019
C’est fini pour @ThibautPinot qui souffre trop pour continuer. Un moment très difficile pour lui et son équipe.#TDF2019 pic.twitter.com/qr7Bab0iPk
Pinot’s abandonment was the Tour’s low point. There was no person an abandonment could hurt more. Pinot carried France on his shoulders, which is a lot of pressure for someone as mercurial as he is. He has struggled in the past to rein in his emotions when he has had setbacks, and almost seemed ready to throw in the towel when he lost 1’40” because of crosswinds earlier in the Tour. (He took back time the next day, calling it “revenge” against an act of nature.)
More broadly and selfishly, Pinot’s abandonment feels unfair to what has been a thrilling Tour, and to those of us who have invested ourselves so deeply in it. Pinot was supposed to be the cherry on top of the tasty sundae that Alaphilippe made by breaking from modern cycling’s power-meter tactics and attacking recklessly. I had even become convinced that two were working together despite riding for different teams. Alaphilippe, one of the best finishers in cycling, suspiciously let Pinot beat him at the end of that two-man breakaway, giving Pinot a two-second time bonus that could have been the difference in an ultra-tight battle for the maillot jaune.
Alaphilippe is still in the yellow jersey, riding like hell to become a French Tour legend. But another potential legend ended Friday. And though there’s still everything left to be decided, it’s impossible not to ache for what we’ll now never have.