French hero Pinot describes Tour meltdown as career 'turning point'


Loudenvielle (France) (AFP)

The main hope of a home Tour de France win in 35 years Thibaut Pinot said on Saturday he had arrived at a "turning point" in his career after a dramatic stage eight meltdown in which he lost 15 minutes.

A brooding and emotional man with a tattoo reading "only victory is beautiful" on his arm Pinot has pulled out of the race four times in his six previous attempts, but the French public love him.

"My back hurts so much I can hardly pedal," said Pinot, who fell and was run over on Nice's Promenade des Anglais in the rain-lashed and crash-marred first stage.

"It was a really hard day for me. I'm so sorry for my teammates and for the fans because I have failed so many times. This might be a turning point in my career," he added after the first major mountain slog of the 2020 Tour as the race hit the Pyrenees.

Pinot, originally from Burgundy, leads Groupama-FDJ and quit last year's Tour in tears.

"I always said cycling was for pleasure, to win races, and there have been too many failures," he said.

"I'm speaking in the heat of the moment, the Tour goes on, the team is strong and I hope one of the lads goes on to get a stage win," he added, without saying whether he planned to ride on.

France national team coach Thomas Voeckler said Pinot's hopes of wearing the yellow jersey at the end of the month were over.

"I'm disappointed for him, a year's work gone up in smoke. He won't win the Tour de France and it's not because of his form," he said.

His team boss Marc Madiot, known to celebrate Pinot's wins wildly, was also a forlorn figure.

"The cat is out of the bag now, we were trying to keep it quiet and cover it up," he said of Pinot's painful back.

- Mood swings -

Pinot is enthralling to watch as he by turns smashes water bottles into the ground or weeps unconsolably in defeat.

Ahead of the Tour, Pinot was in fighting mood as he faced the daunting task of delivering a first home Tour de France win since Bernard Hinault 35 years ago.

Belief in him had run high in 2019 during a rollercoaster ride that began with flair and ended in tears and a mystery injury, but the charismatic climber returned for 2020 in hot form.

He believed he was better prepared this year for the pressure of carrying his nation's hopes because of the cooler weather, the distance he learned while his parents had Covid-19, and the multiple mountains on this year's course that he knows well.

The climber with his flashing smile also grew up where stage 20 will be held this year, the ever-popular Planche des Belles Filles.

"I'm no longer afraid of the Tour as I once was," he said.

"All that pressure was in my mind, it wasn't the media or the people of France, it was me."

"There will be more failures before I'm through, but like the Tour, I'm ready for that now," he said.

Despite his failures, he is a French exception in that fans seem to like him more than his countryman, the tough former soldier Julian Alaphilippe, who led the Tour for 14 stages last year.