Lombardia champ Pinot, a Frenchman who loves Italy

The 28-year-old raced to victory in the season's final monument over the weekend.

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The Sunday cover of L’Equipe said it all about Thibaut Pinot and his tremendous fall campaign: “Pinot Sacré” — Pinot Anointed.

It takes a lot to push Europe’s soccer off the front pages in the throes of the season, but Pinot’s impressive stampede across the Giro di Lombardia was page-one worthy.

The 28-year-old Frenchman not only won France’s first Giro di Lombardia in a generation, but he did it with panache. Cyrille Guimard would be proud.

Pinot attacked relentlessly to drop everyone, including two-time champion Vincenzo Nibali, in a thrilling season-ending duel in Italy’s hardest monument. His winning margin was the largest in 22 years. It’s only fitting that France’s most dogged climber won the climber’s classic.

“Such strong emotion,” Pinot said after crossing the line. “It’s not my nature to be so demonstrative, but I can assure you it means so much.”

This Lombardia victory caps a tremendous run by Pinot and sees a stronger and more adventurous version of the French talent emerging by season’s end. Pinot sunk to the lowest of lows during the Giro d’Italia in May, when he defended a podium position in the battle over the Colle della Finestre only to succumb to pneumonia 36 hours later. A depleted Pinot simply could not finish the final stage.

That illness kept him sidelined for the Tour de France, but he bounced back for the Vuelta a España. Realizing he didn’t quite have the legs to win, he raced tactically and rode away with two stage victories. And while his legs faltered in a bid for the rainbow jersey, he hit his stride just in time for his favorite classic.

“After the Vuelta, he is a different rider,” team doctor Jack Maillot told L’Equipe. “He knew he had good legs. He has such strength of character.”

Pinot’s victory at the Milan-Turin midweek semi-classic only bolstered his confidence and foretold Saturday’s narrative in Italy.

“I’m in the best shape of my career,” Pinot said. “When Vincenzo attacked, I knew it was the move to follow. To beat him in these conditions was a dream. The key was to attack.”

Pinot has a long-running love affair with Italy. One of his first major amateur wins came at the Tour of Valle d’Aosta in 2009. He notched one of his earliest pro wins in Europe at the Settimana Lombarda. He digs Italy so much that he has the words “Only victory is beautiful” in Italian tattooed on his right arm.

“This is one race I wanted to tick off,” he said. “If I had gotten to the end of my career without winning it, I’d be disappointed.”

Pinot’s win is the first Lombardia victory for a Frenchman since Laurent Jalabert won in 1997. It hasn’t been for not trying. Pinot has raced seven editions of Lombardia, every year running since 2011 (except in 2016). In fact, it is the only “monument” he’s even raced.

“Since I was a kid, this race has always fascinated me,” Pinot said. “I still have images in my mind of Bettini and Cunego fighting for the win. They transmitted the passion of Lombardia to me as I was growing up.”

Pinot’s journey to the top of the peloton has been beset with false starts, inflated hopes, and dogged determination. Unlike some of his compatriots who flinch at the weight of France’s “next big thing,” Pinot’s grim determination helped push him through.

Third overall at the 2014 Tour de France perhaps inflated his real grand tour potential, at least on home roads. Although he can defend against the clock, he is always going to bleed time against the likes of Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin. Since that Tour breakout, he’s only finished one more Tour — 16th in 2015 — and he DNF’d in 2016 and 2017. He did not start the race this year.

Pinot may never win a Tour, but a Giro could well be in his future. It would only be fitting for the Frenchman who loves Italy.

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