At the end of the season, a big chapter of the Groupama-FDJ cycling team’s history will close. Thibaut Pinot has announced he will retire from the sport after 2023, and while emotion will certainly take over at the end of the year, Marc Madiot guarantees that great things are still to come for the French climber in the coming months. The general manager discusses his rider’s decision and gives quite an optimistic take of the situation.
Marc, the news is now public. Thibaut will retire at the end of the season. When did he first talk to you about it?
There never were any serious conversations, but we did feel that it was gradually taking space in his mind. We understood that it had been maturing for some time. Let’s say we started to see the decision coming in the middle of 2022. It then really took shape at the end of the season, but there were forerunners: a few words here and there, some feelings, quite simply. Thibaut really formalized it to me at the end of the season, and I wasn’t surprised. For me, it was almost expected. There was also a significant factor: his contract was expiring. Somehow the stars were aligned. I knew it was time, that’s all. I know the guy, I could feel that it was going to happen.
“Thibaut is at peace with himself”
Did you try to dissuade him?
Not at all, because I know him well enough, and I also know that the end of a career is something very personal. Having now been in the business for a while, I’ve come across several cases. On this particular matter, when the athlete is determined, you must not go against it. It’s no use and it’s not good for anyone. I have known other cases where I felt that the rider was hesitating. In that case, the role of the team manager is also to make the rider aware that if he is asking himself questions, he is not far from the answer. Every career end is a particular case. It really is. It also depends on the family environment, the course of the career, and whether ambitions have been fulfilled or not. The only rule I command myself to follow is to listen to the person I have in front of me. When Thibaut Pinot comes to see me and says: “I’m retiring”, he is the one that decides to stop. You can think that it’s the right time or not, but he’s the one to decide. I have experienced it. I know what high-level sport is, and I know what it is like when your body, your mind, or both at the same time, tell you “it’s time”. You can’t fight that. That’s also my role as a boss. It’s easy to say to someone “you can still continue”. But no, you shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t take anything away from the human relationship you share with the rider, on the contrary. In this kind of situation, my role is really to stick to what the person is and to understand the message.
Did Thibaut tell you the reasons for his decision?
I think he has simply come at the end of the line, on a personal level, regarding his evolution as an athlete, regarding the future of racing and the evolution of the team. He is at peace with himself. I think that, physically, he can still race, but he has come at the end of the line. He is a rider who likes to work in an environment that he knows. He needs his cocoon around him, and the team lives, changes, grows, and those who were there with him for a long time have progressively left. Time goes by, quite simply. I completely understand his reasons, also because it is something very personal, as I said.
In your opinion, was it easier for him to make this decision after overcoming his setbacks?
In 2019, when he told me “I’m going to drop everything”, we were in the heat of the moment. I didn’t believe him for a second. I knew he would want to bounce back, I didn’t need to read tea leaves. He was also in trouble in 2020 and 2021, he wanted to drop everything, but he wouldn’t let go. I didn’t know how and when he would come back, but he still had the fire inside him. It wasn’t time yet. Now he’s making a successful comeback and I’m sure he’ll have a successful departure. The fact that he is now a fully-fledged rider again and that he is back to a high level surely helps him to make his decision today. The general context also has a big influence. Thibaut has seen that cycling has changed between the beginning of his career and today. We are no longer on the same pattern, and that is not his thing, he experienced something else. I totally understand that.
“We can look back on it all with some nostalgia […] but we certainly can’t stand still”
What does his upcoming retirement mean for the team?
It’s the end of an era. We complete the circle, and a great chapter of the team’s life. But it’s not death. It’s just time passing and life going on. You can look back on it all with some nostalgia and stop for a moment, but you can’t stand still. The team must continue to move forward, to develop, to innovate, and to strengthen in all areas to remain very competitive. If you stop and lose time to look at your record, you’re dead. That’s the team’s life. We honour the people who leave us, we escort them, but the house’s hard core must continue to strengthen. The transition is already taking place. For a long time, especially in the Tour, we were dependent on Pinot. But since 2021, that is no longer true. The team has already prepared itself for the post-Pinot era, like we’ve witnessed in the last Tour. And it’s not just that. On the other side, there is Démare in the sprints, Madouas, Gaudu, Küng, then Grégoire, Martinez and all the young riders who are coming up. We are already thinking about tomorrow. The team didn’t wait, and couldn’t wait, for Thibaut to retire to prepare for the next stage. That doesn’t take anything away from the respect, admiration, and recognition that we can have for Thibaut, but the role of a team, and in particular of its manager, is to not stop. You look, you greet, you honour, but you can’t stop. From this point of view, I am confident and reassured.
Is it too early to ask you what mark Thibaut will leave in the team?
I think we can talk about the Groupama-FDJ team without talking about Thibaut, but we must talk about him. The Pinot decade has allowed the team to become what it is today. He helped lay the foundations of what the team is today. We need to go back in history. For ten years, we were in the aftermath of 1998. We were doing “social” cycling, we were trying to get the sport back on track. This was achieved with the help of many people, who are no longer here today but who played their part at the time. Then Thibaut arrived with a new generation of riders, and we started to turn towards real performance. It was done small steps after small steps, it wasn’t always easy and simple, but he was the beginning of it all. We felt that we had a rider with extraordinary potential, who had something that the others didn’t. We then entered a new phase in the development of our team and our sport. He was one of the starting points of all this, because from the moment you find yourself with a rider of this quality, you have to bring the team into line. He also allowed us, in a way, to build a long-term partnership with Groupama and FDJ. And conversely, if Thibaut has been able to have such a long career and remain in the team, it is also thanks to Groupama and FDJ. He participated in the transformation, in a sort of “Industrial Revolution” if we want to draw a comparison with the economy. And just as today our society is making its ecological and energy revolution, we are also going to start a new phase as far as we’re concerned. It is inevitable, we must be ready for the other phases. We have to take the right turns once Thibaut is off the track, but we’re already there, I’m not worried.
Isn’t there a touch of emotion?
There will surely be some emotion at the end of the year. The little tear in the eye, the final round of applause, that will be in October. It’s not for today. Today, when I see Thibaut Pinot in training, during team camps or in everyday life, I see someone who feels comfortable with himself. And I think he will have a great season. That’s what I feel. He has nothing to prove, he just needs to finish while having a great time, and he will. He’s going to do things that he probably wouldn’t have done before. It’s coming to an end, and he wants to finish on a high note. The feeling I get is that saying “it’s over” frees him up and paradoxically opens certain perspectives. The path is clear in his head, and he doesn’t want to keep it to himself. He wants to get rid of it and of the potential questions that would have been asked all year. In a way, he is closing this topic. Today, we are ready to have a great 2023 season, Thibaut Pinot must be part of it, and he will have a good season. This is not a farewell tour, and I know that he doesn’t think like that either.
“He wants to enjoy his last season to the fullest”
You say you are convinced that he will have a successful departure. How so?
Through performance and competitiveness. He’s not riding this year to hang around at the back of the pack. We don’t even have to talk about it. I can see it. He doesn’t have a “take it easy” mindset. I think, for example, that he will have a very good Giro. We’re going to put ourselves in a position to be with the best all the time. We’ll see where it takes us, and if there are opportunities, he’ll take them, but he won’t do the Giro in the gruppetto. At the press conference in December, I said he was going to have a great season, and I said that because he’s in the right place. When I met him again after the break, in thirty seconds I understood that he was in the right state of mind. I know him well enough to know that he is not “retired” mentally. This is his last season, and I think he wants to savour it, to enjoy it to the fullest, because it will inevitably bring him satisfaction.
For the team, how do you approach 2023 with that in mind?
We are focused on the season! It’s Thibaut’s last one, but we’re focused on doing it well. We’re going to enjoy the races with him, but we’ll be serious and assiduous, as if it wasn’t his last season. He also has this point of view. I saw him in training, he is one of those who rode the most. Once again, the sequence of emotion and nostalgia will come in October. Today, he’s announcing that he will retire, and knowing him, he gets rid of a lot of questions. But there are still some great things to do. I am even sure of one thing: he will be sharp and ready from the first races he will ride.
How do you think the public will receive the news?
With a certain nostalgia, of course. For many people, Thibaut represents romantic cycling, with emotions, with victories and setbacks. We must also recognise that on a global point of view, cycling has now become very controlled, stereotyped, conditioned, regulated. With Thibaut Pinot, it was something else. That’s why people will have the feeling that a page is being turned, but maybe other romantics will come along. For me, he is a rider of paradoxes. He is seen as someone who is fragile, who has anxieties, fears, but when you scratch deep enough, he is actually one of the riders who goes the furthest into suffering. He hangs on. There is a kind of misunderstanding for many people, I have already said it. He can make you break out in a cold sweat, you might think it’s crumbly, but it’s actually rock solid! That’s probably also why there is so much passion around him. He shared a lot of his emotions. I don’t know what the reactions will be, but there will definitely be love. You can feel it as soon as you talk about Thibaut. There is no need to tell the public to go on the road to see him one last time, they will be there anyway.