Thibaut Pinot will be where he wants to be on Monday - in his vegetable garden with his goats running around, far from the chaos of the Tour de France, a race he never loved even if he came close to winning it.
The 33-year-old will call it quits in October after the Giro di Lombardia, a Monument classic he won in 2018, a year before he came agonisingly close to becoming the first Frenchman to prevail on the world's biggest cycling race since 1985.
In 2019, the Groupama-FDJ rider, who spent his whole career with the French team, was the strongest of the field but was forced to quit a day before the last competitive stage with a thigh injury, leaving the race, and a whole country, in tears.
In 2020, his hopes were dashed after a crash in the first stage.
"We know that 2018, 2019 was the climax of my career. I would have liked to know where it could have taken me without that crash in 2020, but we'll never know," Pinot said.
The Tour has always been an event too big for a man who finds his peace at home, where he goes fishing, grows his vegetables and takes care of his goats, far from the constant din that goes with the race.
"I think I've seen it all and I'm happy like this. I've been preparing for it for a while. Mentally, I'm ready to quit and no victory could make me change my mind," Pinot, who has 'Solo la vittoria e bella' (Only victory is beautiful) on his arm, said.
"I'm far from being the best and yet, I'm the one who gets the most support on the side of the road. I'm not embarrassed by it, but sometimes foreigners must be wondering why that is."
???"I have no regrets. It was incredible, there were so many people on the side of the roads.
On the Petit Ballon, I had goosebumps, the atmosphere was electric, this is beyond description" ??- @ThibautPinot #TDF2023 pic.twitter.com/H9FjL08FOA— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 22, 2023
On Saturday, Pinot was on the attack in the Vosges mountains where he trains, leading the race until the last climb after being cheered on fans who had come from all over the country to support him one final time.
In a spine-chilling moment, Pinot was alone in front in the penultimate climb, the Petit Ballon. Thousands of fans waving flares and flags respectfully left the whole road for their favourite with former teammate Arthur Vichot leading the football-like chants.
WILD AND SHY
"I was looking for my family, I saw some faces I knew. I never thought it would be so emotional. I did not think it would be so strong," a teary-eyed Pinot said.
In a team whose boss, Marc Madiot, has a reputation for being a fierce patriot, Pinot has always preferred the Italian races or the calm of Switzerland.
"I'm a bit wild, I'm shy, and on the Tour you've got a lot of people around you all the time. What I like on the Giro, for example, is that on a rest day I can just go alone in the mountains and I won't see anyone. On the Tour, what I miss, is a day when I can be just on my own," Pinot, one of few riders with stage wins in all three grand tours, said.
While he does not think he has "left a mark in the last decade of cycling", Pinot finished third in the 2014 Tour, fourth in the 2017 Giro and sixth in the 2018 Vuelta.
However, he is one of the last romantics of cycling, a rider of instinct whose desire of freedom has always been bigger than his ambitions.
"I don't like pro cycling as much as I did. But the team has always given some leeway. For some teams, it would be inconceivable to have a rider like me," he said.
Pinot was taken to the hearts of French fans when he won a mountain stage on his Tour debut in 2012, adding iconic wins at the top of L'Alpe d'Huez (2015) and at the Tourmalet in 2019, a day before he showed he was the strongest on the race by dropping his rivals one by one on the ascent to Prat d'Albis.
"That day I showed I was the best rider of the Tour," he said.
"He's an odd guy, a one-of-kind rider. A palmares is just lines on a resume. He'll be leaving much more than that," Madiot said as he broke into tears.