'Thibaut is God for us' – Spending a day with the Collectif Ultras Pinot at Il Lombardia

As Thibaut Pinot set out on his final professional bike race, GCN met with the legions of his loyal fans who had travelled from near and afar to honour their hero

Clock07:58, Friday 20th October 2023
An otherwise nondescript bend on La Boccola becomes Curva Pinot for the day, appropriately draped in sun, smiles and singing

© George Poole

An otherwise nondescript bend on La Boccola becomes Curva Pinot for the day, appropriately draped in sun, smiles and singing

"Laissez passer les coureurs, faites de la place!” That’s the plea that echoes around La Boccola, as the world's best riders thunder through the ancient streets of Bergamo – "please let the riders through, make some room!"

Tadej Pogačar has been and gone, as have Adam Yates, Primož Roglič and the like. Il Lombardia is in its final knockings and these megaphone-clad supporters, under the strict supervision of the Italian police, have been instructed to try and keep their masses at arm's length from the riders. But their task will soon be made impossible.

Cowbells ring out, black and white scarves flurry through the air, and a cloud of red, blue and white smoke engulfs the final climb of the season’s final Monument. The frontrunners may have passed through, but the headline act has yet to appear.

No longer is there a racing line to follow. In fact, you can't even make out the tarmac beneath the thousands of feet that now swamp the course. This is no longer about the race, but about one man. He’s about to round the bend that has been momentarily renamed in his honour, so large is the crowd of his supporters that adorn its banking.

Chants announce his imminent arrival. An ecstatic roar of emotion echoes up the hillside and, all of a sudden, the crowd floods into the centre of the road. With a push in the back and an arm around the shoulder from a friendly neighbour, we enter the troupe. A flash of blue lycra catches the eye amongst the rabble and, from within, a smile emerges.

A rider like no other, and a supporters’ club like no other

Thibaut Pinot is a cyclist like no other. He managed to produce some of the finest performances seen from a French cyclist in generations, and captured the hearts and minds of thousands along the way. And yet, in the record books, the 33-year-old will go down as someone who never quite lived up to his initial expectations.

A Tour de France stage winner at 22, podium finisher at 24 and a man seemingly destined to become France’s first winner of the Grande Boucle since Bernard Hinault in 1985, Pinot never finished on another podium of a Grand Tour. But for all the setbacks and injuries that came to define his later career, one thing remained constant for the man from the Franche-Comté - the unwavering support of a fanbase whose passion is unrivalled and practically unprecedented in modern cycling.

Like the rider himself, the Collectif Ultras Pinot (CUP) is a supporters’ club like no other. Born out of a WhatsApp group, the Ultras dreamt of becoming to Pinot what the Collectif Ultra Paris is to Paris Saint Germain in football. It is with this group of passionate football supporters that Pinot himself chooses to watch PSG games, rather than sit in a hospitality box.

With their smoke flares, chants and communal spirit, the Collectif Ultras Pinot are unmissable on the side of the road and have brought a taste of football fandom to cycling, all in the name of supporting one of France’s favourite sons.

There are around 2,500 of them on the roadsides of Bergamo for Pinot’s final hurrah, Il Lombardia, the last race of a 14-year career. This comes just a few months after their presence on the Petit Ballon at the Tour de France brought a tear to many an eye, and only a few years after their birth as Pinot’s official fan club.

But despite the group’s relative youth, it embodies the legion of (mostly) French fans who have followed Pinot across the world throughout his career, providing the battle cry to his most famous wins and the warm embrace of sympathy after his most crushing downfalls.

To Bergamo from all corners of Europe

9:30am, and the first chants of “chalalalalalala Thibaut Pinot” ring out. It’s a song that’ll be sung thousands of times before the day is done.

Via planes, trains and automobiles, fans of Thibaut Pinot have travelled from all corners of Europe to congregate in the historic Lombard city of Bergamo. The ancient streets of La Boccola in the old town will be the designated meeting point for the second coming of Curva Pinot/Virage Pinot/Pinot Corner. But it’s in the Piazza della Libertà in downtown Bergamo where, with the sun barely in the sky, the festivities are beginning, many hours before the race will speed through these streets.

The majority of those hardy souls ringing in the day to a chorus of drums and orchestrated chants were French, of course, but not all.

“We came yesterday from Switzerland,” reveal Sebastian and Honorine, a lovely couple whose passion for Pinot had them ensconced firmly within the throngs of Ultras. “It is four and a half hours by train, but we missed our connection in Milan because our train was late! It took a long time but we finally made it and we are here today.”

Cancellations and delays were among the travel woes suffered by GCN as we made our own way to Bergamo via shoddy coaches, airport boozers and budget airlines, but such difficulties were never going to stop the Pinot faithful from touching down in Lombardy’s fourth-largest city.

“It was a long story,” says Bertrand, the father of two young members of the CUP, when asked about his travels. His sons, Mateo and Lilian, had travelled from Grenoble and Paris, but not without their own troubles. “My son’s flight was cancelled, we were in Milan waiting for him, so he moved to a flight to Turin. We took a rental car to drive to Turin last night and dragged him here. It was never an option to leave him behind – we are a family!”

Such was the love felt not just for Pinot, but for one another, it felt as though the Collectif Ultras Pinot were one big family, at least for a day.

Leaving the Piazza della Libertà behind, the group party all the way to La Boccola. What would normally be a 25-minute walk takes the masses nigh-on three hours to complete. Along the way lie plenty of ‘regroupements’ and more than the occasional sleepy resident awoken from their slumber by the chorus of “chalalalalalala Thibaut Pinot”.

Out swing the hinges of their wooden shutters, with sleepy-eyed locals yearning to discover what hubbub had caused such disturbance. Beneath the cloud of coloured smoke, they meet eyes with the hundreds of French fans who are travelling on a wave of euphoria that had begun hours or days in advance. For them, sleep was not an option; all clocks point to 4:30pm and the arrival of the race onto La Boccola.

“We left yesterday evening at 7pm and we arrived at 7am this morning,” laughed a sleep-deprived but cheery woman named Stella. “From Dijon, down to Toulouse, Montpellier and then Grenoble through to Italy. There was no way we were going to miss this.”

1000km from Dunkirk, 600km from Épinal, 500km from the Franche-Comté… the tales of lengthy car journeys continued to roll in, but for some, the anticipation of what was to come – Pinot’s final race – was simply too much.

“It took six hours driving all through the night from Lyon, and I didn’t sleep,” admits a gentleman named Antony. “I cannot speak much more because I cried too much already, it should be incredibly special.”

‘This is not a robo from Jumbo: Thibaut is human, with pain and feelings’

People like Pinot because he is human – not in a literal sense, but a philosophical one. From Poitiers to Grenoble, the travel tales were individual, but the reason behind the journeys remained a constant: admiration, support and love for Pinot.

“It is a natural connection,” remarks Bertrand’s son, Lilian. “When we go out on our bike, we can feel like Thibaut, we are acting like him, with our mouths open, swinging from side to side.” At this point, Bertrand pitches in and contrasts Pinot with other stars of modern cycling, something that becomes a theme with many of the supporters throughout the course of the day.

“It is very different to Jonas Vingegaard. He is a machine, whereas Pinot is human. Vingegaard always wins – it does not interest me.”

Pinot’s vulnerability stands him apart from the superstars of the 2020s, who display an unnerving sense of invincibility that rather cruelly makes them less than favourable in the eyes of supporters. The supremacy of Vingegaard – who has looked unbeatable at the Tour de France over the last two seasons – offers the perfect contrast with a rider like Pinot.

The Frenchman’s career has been one of major highs and devastating lows. For every high, there seemed to be a low, and vice versa, There have been viruses, which prematurely ended his 2016 season, pneumonia, which put paid to his hopes of finishing on the podium of the 2018 Giro d’Italia, mysterious injuries, like the one that robbed him of a golden opportunity to win the 2019 Tour de France and, in recent years, crippling back pains, which have prevented him from returning to his swashbuckling best.

But for all the tears, aches and pains along the way, Pinot’s fans have chosen to suffer through each misfortune alongside their hero, and in their eyes, each defeat has only made him more relatable, more likeable and more inspirational.

“I love him because he teaches everybody that every time you fall, you do not give up,” notes Fabio, a resident of Como who helped the Ultras organise their trip,

“He teaches you to challenge yourself, and be better and try again. Because the second time, maybe it is better, maybe it is not, but the third time, maybe it is better, maybe it is not, or the fourth time… you always have to try.”

“He is a romantic cyclist,” add Grégoire and Thibaut from Normandy. “Whether it be wins or losses, we cannot be disappointed. He is like me on a bike, when he loses, we can relate to him. He is a human cyclist with emotions, this is not a robo [robot] from Jumbo!

“This is a real man with feelings, with pain, you can see when he is on the pedals, you can see his face, his expressions, his struggles… He communicates his emotions – that is Thibaut.”

From Matthieu Ladagnous to a classroom of school kids, Pinot’s faithful arrive at La Boccola

We finally arrive at La Boccola, the final climb of Il Lombardia. Friends, family and fans of Pinot merge as one. There is no hierarchy here, only an emotional coming together of a people united by one man.

Groupama-FDJ team boss Marc Madiot makes a tearful visit, Pinot’s older brother and coach Julien appears donning one of the team’s celebratory t-shirts, and loyal teammate Matthieu Ladagnous finds himself amongst the cheerful – just days after ending his own career.

“This is impressive,” Ladagnous says. “Thibaut is special, he had a different connection with the fans, so I’m liking it too.”

There is a sense that Ladagnous had been waiting until Pinot retired before he also left the sport, such is the bond between the pair. Jeremy Roy, Antoine Duchesne and Kévin Réza are among the other former riders who could not resist supporting their friend out on the road.

As the hours pass by on La Boccola, the party only increases in volume as people begin to settle into their positions. Such a task is a difficult one, however, with the Ultras’ conductors whipping the crowd into a jumping frenzy every few minutes.

Flags are handed out, t-shirts are brandished, and scarves are raised once more. A Pinot take on Ricchi e Poveri’s ‘Sarà perché ti amo’ is the latest chant to ring out from the crowd, young and old. There is no age limit here, each youngster has a learned mind and a story to tell.

“Someone in our school class called Clement told us that we should come, because we are Thibaut Pinot fans,” reveal a group of school kids from Grenoble. Valentin, Timothée, Frin, Victor and François are among those we grab a word with, but 11 of their classmates have also made the six-hour journey. They may be younger than those who have been enjoying the local Italian ale all day, but their resonance with Pinot rings a familiar tune.

“The French really believe in Pinot because he is human, and people can feel like him.”

From the chaos, Pinot emerges

“Pogačar a une minute d'avance, Pinot marche fort et il arrive à Bergame,” bellows one of the conductors from his megaphone. “Thibaut est là dans quelques instants!” A rough paraphrase amounts to “Pogačar is one minute ahead, Pinot has ridden strongly and is going to make it to Bergamo. Thibaut is going to be here any minute!”

With this, an already excitable situation bubbles to sheer rapture. The polizia municipale mount a futile attempt to contain the encroachment and the drummers begin to pound their beat with aplomb. “Chalalalalalala, Thibaut Pinot,” is the rallying cry once more as the frontrunners make their way through the crowd. Pogačar, Carlos Rodríguez, Aleksandr Vlasov… one by one, those names ahead of Pinot on the road pass by, but the anticipation only intensifies.

Each passing rider and car travels under an impromptu archway of ‘Merci Thibaut’ flags, with the Groupama-FDJ team cars reduced to a crawling pace as the masses swamp every window to offer up their gratitude.

Their rider’s arrival is announced by the euphony of cheers that erupt from the bottom of the hillside and carry all the way up to the top, bouncing off the surrounding buildings.

All of a sudden, the moment is here.

Pinot swings his way into Curva Pinot, a right-hand bend that is awash with supporters. Some are on their knees, overcome with emotion, some are perched on a nearby lamppost to survey the scene, and others are arm-in-arm with their new-found family. Each of them wears a smile that is matched by the man on the bike. Rounding the bend, Pinot probably can’t believe his own eyes and ears as he is encircled by the masses.

By the time he reaches our position, any possibility of him pedalling uninterrupted is gone. Instead, Pinot is carried up La Boccola for a moment, handed from fan to fan, lifted to immortality – a hero for generations to come.

‘Merci et au revoir’

For all Pinot is slowed down by the crowds, it’s all over very quickly. In the blink of an eye, he’s gone, and within 10 minutes, he would cross the finish line in downtown Bergamo to end his career.

But for his fans, the memories from Saturday 7 October 2023 will last a lifetime. From Dunkirk to Denmark, they ventured to Bergamo, and from young to old, their motivations remained simple: to honour a cyclist who became a kindred spirit.

“Thibaut is God for us,” beams Frank, who has driven 10 hours along with his son Noah and friend Saaed. “I think tonight he may cry… it was beautiful to see him smile through the corner.”

For all the memories that Pinot has given to his fans throughout the years – not least his victory at the 2018 Il Lombardia (arguably the greatest of his career) – this was his fans’ opportunity to offer up a memory of their own, and boy did they deliver.

“I didn’t plan on being the most fervent fan on the Curva Pinot,” admits GCN en Francais writer Antoine Maret - who joined us in Bergamo. “But on the spot, we received a shot of adrenaline, the crowds were chanting, and we felt taken by the whirlwind. In the end, I had a broken voice.”

Given the deafening cascade of cheers that whisked Pinot up the road, Antoine won’t be alone on that front. The moment had arrived and it felt euphoric.

Not since Raymond Poulidor has a French cyclist been adored by so many, though for Pinot, Il Lombardia simply marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Not one to bask in the acclaim, he would be seen go-karting with friends just days later, and little has been heard from him since.

As for his supporters, they filtered off La Boccola to head into the Bergamo evening, or to begin their long journeys back home, safe in the knowledge they had done what they came to do.

Thibaut Pinot was now immortal.

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