thibaut pinot, the moral winner
2022 tour of the alps
When Thibaut Pinot lost the penultimate stage of the Tour of the Alps to Miguel Ángel López, I opened up Twitter and found an unexpected litany of public mourning.
Even journalists (including myself) abandoned their de rigueur objectivity and commented on the loss, posting into the public void that it was, in fact, heartbreaking. This was a concentrated, collective outpouring of emotion and empathy for this man only a few of us have ever had the pleasure of knowing personally. Thibaut Pinot is not a fictional character — he is a living human being, existing in the realm of fact. And yet it could be said that our visceral reaction perhaps was not for or towards him personally, but rather for and towards the story in which he is the obvious protagonist.
In bike racing (or any sport), “protagonist” is a flexible label. If one tells the story in a certain way, any of the one hundred bike riders in each race could be re-framed as the protagonist. Miguel Ángel López, the man who got the better of Pinot, is, in his own right a sympathetic character — dazzling, impetuous and daring, whose great and consistent struggle has been for dignity and recognition within the teams he’s been a part of. In many cases, especially in the monuments where the stories change drastically from hour to hour, there is more than one protagonist and the narrator’s perspective shifts between them as the plot develops. But in the Tour of the Alps, the cycling community collectively decided that once Thibaut Pinot had a shot at winning, he was the undisputed main character of this tale. This is in itself a testatment to his reputation, his personality, and his life, which while certainly unique among the men of the peloton, have in recent years taken on a mythical or folkloric sheen.
For one, Thibaut Pinot is fundamentally seen as a sympathetic, tragic figure. Once the fountainhead of contemporary French grand tour cycling, he rose to great heights with his triumph atop the Tourmalet in the 2019 Tour de France only to have to bitterly abandon the race shortly thereafter, taking with him France’s greatest hope of a Tour victory in several years. Emotional, noble, outspoken, and gentle, Pinot combines a pastoral ideal (we all know about his pet goats) with the extraordinary talent of an athlete. He has suffered greatly, as all heroes do. His foes are injury, disillusionment, age, and the immense pressure to live up to the unrealistic expectations of an entire nation. For a long time, since 2019, it seemed as though he would succumb to these enemies. (Famously, he was on the brink of retirement last year.) But something within Pinot told him to persevere, as it would later on that mountain in the rain like a little flame keeping him warm.
When Pinot lost at the Tour of the Alps, he expressed deep sadness and frustration, an outpouring of emotion we are not used to seeing from cyclists. Indeed, great athletes often have to find ways to regulate their feelings lest those feelings tear them apart. But it is precisely this unfiltered passion, giving us a glimpse into the very soul and dreams of a man, that awakens in us a profound empathy — for whom among us hasn’t suffered loss, despair, frustration, and defeat in our own lives? Whom among us hasn’t seen abilities and skills we’d once honed to perfection diminish with age, with time, with the inevitable decay that marks the passing of one’s life?
When Pinot loses, it is emotional because we recognize ourselves in him; his grand and easily understood sporting defeat is a scaled up version our own quotidian and human struggles — hence we cry out for any other ending, for it not to be so. And yet we love these stories, even — and perhaps especially — the sad ones. We tell them and cherish them, because within them, there is still, and always will be, hope, and that is something. This is well articulated in a line found in the notebooks of the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić: “It is not shameful to be deceived in a great hope. The mere fact that such a hope could exist is worth so much that it is not too deeply paid for by disappointment, no matter how hard it is.”
For a long time, I’ve been developing this internal idea of “the moral winner.” Often, the moral winner is not, in fact, the actual winner. Sometimes he comes in second, sometimes he loses totally and completely. Always, he is the one with the best story, the one we pour all of our fervent dreaming into, the one who, in our minds, deserves to win the most by way of his particular narrative distinction, his valor, his candor, his efforts, and often, his downfall.
The moral winner is not a permanent label nor a fixed category. Men who were previously dominant can suddenly take on moral winner status after enduring great adversity such as a devastating injury or a particularly painful defeat. Alternatively, the moral winner can be found among once-powerful figures entering their period of natural decline, as is the case with star riders approaching retirement, who, despite being slower and careworn, are able to get close to victory one last time. Often, the term can be awarded to those once-great hopes who have not known the solace of victory for so long. (Romain Bardet, the compassionate, brilliant overall winner of the Tour of the Alps, a man who had not won a stage race in nine years, is the poster child for this category.) It can be applied to those who have dedicated their lives in the service of others and have somehow arrived in the unexpected position of perhaps taking glory themselves.
Moral winners may be found in many of cycling’s colorful and endearing characters: the participants of far-fetched breakaways, the underdogs from lesser teams, the politically outspoken, the brave, the intelligent and poetic, the likeable yet consistently unsuccessful, the so-close-yet-so-far. They can be, like Gino Mäder in last year’s Paris-Nice, young people on the cusp of tasting victory for the first time only to have it cruelly wrested away at the last second. Often, they are those who are remembered long after the actual winners, for theirs are the stories most worth telling.
In cycling’s history, moral winners take on a venerated, legendary status. Gino Bartali, the hero who aided in saving Jews from concentration camps by smuggling immigration papers in his top tube. Raymond Poulidor, the bright, happy, eternal second. Laurent Fignon, the professor, a man whose dreams were so famously crushed at the very last second in the 1989 Tour de France. Greg Lemond, the man who crushed those dreams, became a moral winner (albeit divisive) in his own right: vilified and made a pariah by all of cycling for doubting the veracity of Lance Armstrong, Lemond, after much ardour, would be vindicated in the end. Beyond these stories, among the most famous in our archives, there are many more. They take place in some way, at different scales, in every bike race.
Thibaut Pinot is a moral winner, perhaps the most agreed-upon moral winner in the present men’s peloton. When he, quite daringly, ended up in the same situation the following day — a two-up break with an Astana rider — the whole world bit their fingernails hoping that sadness would not reign supreme once more. The atmosphere was miserable too, with rain and fog drenching and obscuring everything, especially the two men, Pinot and David De La Cruz (who, it must be noted, has not seen victory for an even longer stretch than Pinot himself) as they tackled the last and most horrific of the day’s climbs. Silently, the pair set off, mano a mano in the tenebrous, damp mountains, over wooden bridges and soggy landscapes.
It was an emotional rollercoaster — Pinot’s mechanical (to which De La Cruz responded with the utmost sportsmanship by not ambushing the Frenchman when he was incapacitated), the attacks that followed one after the other, deep pulls at terrible gradients, Pinot’s eventual dropping of De La Cruz only for him to catch up once more on the descent. This was cycling at its finest, a grand tableaux of hope and suffering.
In the end, when Pinot vanquished De La Cruz during the uphill sprint to the line, the whole of cycling exhaled, cheered and probably shed more than a few tears. Finally, after more than a thousand days, Tibaut Pinot had redeemed himself, sublimating his adversity, both yesterday’s and that of the last few years. For once, the moral winner was the actual winner — a remarkably uncommon outcome which fills us with pleasure like no other. In its wake, we can all sleep better knowing that good men can triumph in an unfair and unjust world, that all of our sadness and toil will be rewarded in the end. This is the promise of the oasis, the promise of heaven. It is also the promise of the stories which sustain us and always have sustained us, often through barren years of cynicism and despair, two things cycling is well acquainted with.
Stories like these are why we tell stories in the first place.