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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Poole

Thibaut Pinot and Marco Pantani: Cycling’s Flawed Stars

Reading the quotes coming out of yesterday’s L’Équipe interview with Thibaut Pinot was tough reading, but equally remarkably insightful. Pinot revealed what has been obvious for a while, that he has lost his sense of fun at the Tour de France. With the increased expectation of himself, and the increased professionalism of cycling, the Groupama-FDJ rider bemoaned the use of pre-stage briefings, which come at the expense of wandering around the host town and hearing “the clown tell jokes 20 minutes before the start”.

Pinot conquers Alpe d'Huez on stage 20 in 2015. © AFP

His words have been scrutinised and pulled apart over the past 24 hours, and his presence at the Giro d’Italia in a few months has become better understood, but the interview hinted, somewhat openly, at the flawed nature of Pinot, a man who is seemingly not built to be a Grand Tour winner- not mentally. But is it this frailty that makes us perpetually will him onto achieve success? And if so, what drives that?

Colin O’Brien has written a brilliant book that explores the history of the Giro d’Italia, shedding light on its greatest climbs, greatest editions, greatest stories, greatest riders... one such great being Marco Pantani. In Chapter 13, focusing on the Italian cycling legend, one stumbles upon a passage that arguably fits Thibaut, just as well as it did Marco. Why do we love and cherish these clearly flawed cyclists? Because we see greatness.

“He was about quality more than quantity... and though time and time again all the evidence suggested that he’d never truly fulfil his immense potential, his talent was such that you couldn’t give up hope on it. Pantani was something to hope for.“
Colin O’Brien

Is this passage just as true for Thibaut, as it was true for Marco? Could one simply replace Pantani's name, with that of Pinot?

I myself wrote a lot about Pinot and the complexity of his relationship between vulnerability and greatness, in the closing remarks of ‘A Celebration of the 2019 Tour de France’. I think Pinot is someone we will always root for.

“Tragedy was written on the slopes of Montée d'Aussois & we were all victims... (of) being a supporter of this remarkable but flawed Frenchman. His vulnerability is what draws us to him, but it is also the seeds of our sorrow as we see Pinot fail before the final hurdle.”

There is a sense of Pantani within Pinot, there is this shared sense of inner greatness, too often masked by a cloak of frailty and vulnerability, of a passion that drives them both to failure, rather than success. They are both cyclists of the highest popularity. They are both cyclists in a long history of the most flawed sportsmen. They are both cyclists with the highest potential, or ’were’, rather than ‘are’, in the sorry case of Marco. Pinot is a relic, a dinosaur, if not in age, then in his outlook on cycling. He is a throwback. Whilst the new age of cyclists have come to dominate the sport, Pinot has seen this transition and refused to move with the times. We applaud this, but we equally recognise it as a reason for his failures. Whilst Chris Froome and Primoz Roglic have come to win Grand Tours with an air of robotisation, the cycling fans have arguably not taken either of the man to their hearts, in the same way as they have taken Pinot. In fact, it is only when these dominant riders show weakness, that the cycling community expresses affection for these riders. Prior to stage 20 of the 2019 Tour de France, Roglic looked on course to win a second Grand Tour in less than a year, with this one in France being particularly controlled in its manner. Whilst we understandably applauded his work as a cyclist, amazed by his talent, we arguably did not cherish the man pushing the pedals. There is seperation between ourselves and dominant sportsmen, perhaps too great a separation for us to come to love them. There is no debate however, that a large number of cycling fans love Thibaut Pinot. He is a flawed cyclist, not a man in the makeup of Chris Froome.

Simon Kuper wrote a piece for the Financial Times in 2009, that explained how flawed sportsmen have become a thing of the past, and in some senses, when looking through the lens of professional cycling, he is correct. Despite not mentioning cycling once in his piece, Kuper identifies an interesting year, at which he says the flawed sportsmen became a thing of the past. The year he identifies is 1998. After 1998, for Kuper, the flawed sportsmen is no more, in the grand scheme of things at least. In 1998, Marco Pantani succeeded in achieving the Giro-Tour double, his final acts of stardom before this flawed sportsman succumbed to his vulnerabilities in 1999. 1998 marked arguably the final year of Marco Pantani as the flawed sportsman he was, in the years that followed he was equally, if not more, flawed, but he was arguably a shell of his former self and Pantani was no longer the man cycling once knew. In Madonna di Campiglio, on Saturday 5 June 1999, Marco Pantani was removed from the Giro d’Italia as a result of an adverse blood sample. He was not banned from cycling, but as Colin O’Brien writes, “to Marco, it was a death blow”. The cycling world would never see the Pantani of old again, he would die within five years, driven to the grave by depression and a drug addiction. For Kuper, 1998 marked the end of flawed sportsmen because it was the year that Paul Gascoigne was removed from the England squad, and the year that Andre Agassi re-dedicated himself to tennis, leaving behind his old ways. 1998 marked the turning point, the flawed sportsmen of the past either changed in the pursuit of professionalism, or withered away as a result of their vulnerability and flaws. After 1998, Marco Pantani heartbreakingly withered away, and we were never to see an Italian like him again, perhaps we never will.

”The fantasist had become a striver. He had recognised that modern sport is so demanding that you can’t do it occasionally. You have to live it, and nothing else. Today, top sportsmen model themselves on corporate executives... They follow rigid disciplinary codes, go to bed early, and always speak on message.”
Simon Kuper reflects on the loss of flawed sportsmen

The turn of the century brought an era of professionalism in sport, as global markets brought an increase in funding, television coverage and all of its associated benefits. Scientific breakthroughs brought regimes, diets, standardised patters of behaviour for sportsmen to follow, in order to achieve success. Chris Froome alluded to such behaviour recently, explaining that his move away from Ineos Grenadiers is enjoyable in part due to bringing a change in behaviour. For over half a decade, he has followed similar training and racing structures each season, in order to bring athletic success. There is no arguing this has brought success, as he enters 2021 a four-time Tour de France champion and his generation’s greatest Grand Tour rider. However, Froome is the epitome of the modern sportsman; there is no doubting that within Froome lies a lovely spirit. but we as fans have been kept at arm’s length from Froome’s personality, because to reveal too much would be to reveal potential weaknesses. For almost a decade, Froome has been our sport’s greatest rider, but we have yet to get to know Froome as an individual. And arguably, combined with his incredible success, this has resulted in an alienation from Froome for the modern fan. In Froome, we do not see someone who is replicable, not something to particular aspire to. In Froome, we see a robotic exercise in power, an epitome of the post-1998 sportsman.

In Thibaut Pinot, on the other hand, we see a throwback, a rider who has the spirit of a pre-1998 cyclist. He harkens back to days of yore. The 13 July 1967 brought the tragic end to the life of another flawed sportsman, Tom Simpson. Prior to passing away on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, Tom Simpson was pictured that morning messing about on a boat in Marseille, with his teammate Barry Hoban. It was to be the stage that would define Tom Simpson’s career, his manager insisted a result was necessary for future contracts. But instead of being shacked up in a team car worrying, ‘Major Tom’ was living it large in Vieux Port, enjoying the best years of his life.

Tom Simpson on the morning of his death. © Getty Images

For Pinot, there are no Marseille boats, there are no clowns in the start towns, instead for Pinot there are only briefings on the bus about “a roundabout and wind directions”. The Frenchman is not able to succeed consistently in these modern times because he has the mindset of a rider prior to 1998, prior to professionalism and the wholesale change to sport. There is weakness in Pinot, there is vulnerability. There is little, if any, room for weakness or vulnerability in the modern sportsman. But his weaknesses and vulnerabilities are what draw us to these flawed sportsmen, it is what draws us to them as people. We live for the fleeting moments that greatness and vulnerability strike the ultimate equilibrium, resulting in the success that we live in hope of. For Pinot, the Col du Tourmalet in the 2019 Tour de France was such a moment. At that point in time, the balance between greatness and vulnerability was struck, Pinot’s flashes of brilliance shone through as he soared to stage victory. Five days later, the flaws that make him a fan favourite, were what brought his Tour to a premature conclusion, as he left the race in tears. His body could not sustain the greatness that his legs had promised, an injury brought his career-defining Tour to an almighty halt. Perhaps we will never see such brilliance from Thibaut again, but just as with Pantani, we live in hope.

Marco Pantani faces the world after his expulsion from the 1999 Giro d'Italia. © Yuzuru Sunada

The fleeting moment between weakness and greatness was struck by Pantani on the climb to Montecampione in 1998. After his return from a career-defining injury, Pantani would no longer be the balding man that cycling witnessed soar in the 1994 Giro d’Italia. No, Pantani was now the bald-headed, earring-wearing, goatee-donning superstar, that would define his place in cycling history as ‘Il Pirata’. The ordinary man had donned his supersuit, perhaps to recognise a change in the man himself, but more likely, to hide his vulnerabilities and mask his flaws. Before injury, Pantani had been mocked as having ears like an elephant. Upon return, his ears were soon surgically pinned back and ‘Il Pirata’ graced the screens in his now-trademark look. The climb to Montecampione brought the singular, biblical moment that the flaws and greatness of Pantani came to an electric equilibrium. See, on the climb, Pantani was not masked by his supersuit, he was simply Marco, the boy-turned-man that cycling had come to love four years prior. As detailed in Colin O’Brien’s book, ‘Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race’, Pantani shed himself of his mask with three kilometres of the climb to go; he threw down his bandana, threw away his glasses and bidon. He even went to the lengths of removing his earring. Pantani was no longer wearing the mask of ‘Il Pirata’, instead we saw a fleeting moment of Marco’s grace and greatness as a man. He soared into the azure heavens and secured the maglia rosa.

“By the summit, he had 57 seconds, and as he crossed the line... he held his arms out, as if on a crucifix, with his exhausted expression and his closed eyes turned to the sky”.
Colin O’Brien

In this moment, Pantani was exalted of his flaws, of everything that held him back. In this moment, we saw Pantani at his mesmerising best. It was this greatness that cycling spent the years until his death hoping to see once more. There would be rare flashes, such as on the Col du Galibier later that year, but ultimately 1998 would see the end of Pantani as a flawed great. Instead, he simply became a very flawed man, who could never quite strike that fleeting moment of equilibrium once again. For Pinot, this equilibrium was struck at Alpe d’Huez in 2015, it was struck again on the Col du Tourmalet in 2019.

But these moments are sporadic, and perhaps like Pantani, we will spend the rest of his career in hope of seeing them once again. Perhaps it is this hope that keeps us mesmerised by these riders, perhaps if they achieved consistent success, then we would no longer be drawn to them in the same way. Because nobody can identify with perfection. “Pantani was something to hope for”... equally, Pinot is something to hope for. Froome is only something to hope for following his devastating crash in 2019, not before, not whilst he was as near to cycling perfection as you get. Fans are disengaged from the robotic displays of modern sportsmen and that is why flawed greats will always draw acclaim. Flawed greats strike greatness every so often, but the rest of the time their flaws can prove their downfall. In the meantime, we continue to hope to see the greatness strike again. In an era where flawed sportsmen are rarities, men like Thibaut Pinot are worth celebrating, they offer fans someone who will talk from their heart, not from the accepted script. This is what Pinot offered yesterday to L’Équipe; in admitting that he would move himself on if he was a team manager, he offered us a glimpse into the weakness and vulnerability that makes him an athlete to root for. With Pinot, we are unlikely to ever see sustained success, we are looking unlikely to ever see him win a Grand Tour, but in the meantime we will hope. Thibaut Pinot is something to hope for, just as Marco Pantani was before him. The flawed sportsmen still exist in our sport, and until that is no longer the case, they will be the riders most celebrated by fans.

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