Domestique has his day as Armirail claims unexpected Giro d'Italia lead
On the eve of his Tour de France debut in 2021, Bruno Armirail was under no illusions about the place he occupied in the cosmos of a sport where lightyears have traditionally divided the stars from the water carriers.
"A cycling team is a bit like a factory: there's a hierarchy and if someone isn't made to be a boss, it's best that he never becomes one," Armirail told L'Équipe back then. "Me, I like my status as an équipier. I take a lot of pride in it."
That perhaps explained the Frenchman's sense of displacement when he found himself being helped into a most unexpected maglia rosa on the podium in Cassano Magnago after stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia. In the mixed zone afterwards, he confessed to unfamiliarity with the entire protocol of race leader, from the ceremony itself to the media obligations that followed.
"I didn't really feel at ease on the podium, because I've never been on the podium apart from the French time trial championships last year," Armirail said almost apologetically. "I'm not really used to opening bottles of champagne. It's team leaders who do that. This is something exceptional for a domestique."
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Giro d'Italia 2023 route
Armirail's primary task on this Giro has been to take care of Thibaut Pinot, but he was given a rare leave of absence from those duties on Saturday to chase stage victory from the large early break that went clear ahead of the Simplonpass.
"You had to be alert and lucky to get in the break today because it went on the flat," he said. "I was going for the stage win, but I was on the limit at the end because I'd gotten very cold on the descent."
The dream died as the move broke up in the finale. So it goes, it was always a long shot. After reaching the finish in 15th place, 53 seconds down on winner Nico Denz (Bora-Hansgrohe), Armirail was already rolling anonymously back to his bus, ready to return to the rhythms and routines of the domestique, when he was asked to wait by the podium.
There, he learned that the peloton was still trundling through the rain more than 10km from the finish. It was increasingly clear that Geraint Thomas and Ineos were eager to let the maglia rosa pass to someone else. Armirail, who began the day in 23rd overall at 18:37, was the best-placed rider in the break. As he watched the finale unfold on television, the realisation slowly hit him. He was someone else.
By the time the gruppo rolled past the finish line some 21:11 down, the maglia rosa had already passed to Armirail, though he seemed to struggle to believe it, rubbing his face as the news was formally confirmed. He now sits atop the overall standings, 1:41 ahead of Thomas and 1:43 up on Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).
"This morning, I was more than 18 minutes down on GC, so I didn't see this jersey coming," Armirail said. "The key to today was that Ineos left the jersey to me, clearly, it's not that I went out looking for it. In the end, Ineos were kind enough to let the jersey go. It's something exceptional."
In the press conference truck afterwards, Armirail puffed his cheeks in disbelief when he was informed that he had become the first Frenchman to wear the maglia rosa in the 21st century. The last man to achieve the feat was Laurent Jalabert in 1999, but Armirail admitted that he had not grown up with 'Jaja' – or indeed other compatriot – as an idol.
"To be clear, I started cycling quite late, and up until I was 15 or 16 years of age, I wasn't very interested in cycling and I didn't really have idols," he said.
A native of Bagnères-de-Bigorre in the heart of the Pyrenees, Armirail hails from a farming background. He played a range of sports in his youth, including rugby, tennis and athletics, before eventually being drawn to the bike. At the age of 20, he left the south-west for the first time in his life to join the Armée de Terre Continental squad in Paris.
"I'd never been on holidays before then, I'd never even been on a plane or a train," he told L'Équipe in that 2021 interview.
His progress, however, was halted by a serious training crash in January 2015 that left him with a triple fracture of the kneecap. After struggling to recover, he was dropped by the Armée de Terre at the end of 2016, but perhaps it was stepping back to amateur level that ultimately helped him make the leap to the WorldTour at the start of 2018.
At Groupama-FDJ, Armirail quickly settled into his role as a domestique, but even then, he encountered the occasional obstacle. Last year, for instance, he was pencilled in to ride the Tour de France only to be dropped at the last minute in favour of Antoine Duchesne. His response was to claim the first and only win of his pro career in the French time trial championships. "I'll be ready in July, but on my couch," Armirail said then. "The disappointment will be there for a while..."
Any lingering dissatisfaction has surely dissipated with this surprising stint in the pink jersey, and he will now hope to defend the garment on the rugged stage 15 to Bergamo before conceding it in the high mountains.
"I'd like to get to the rest day with it, but the main objective for the team for the rest of the Giro is to win a mountain stage with Thibaut Pinot," said Armirail.
Still, his day out in the break here means that he will enjoy a day out of his regular life when he dons the pink jersey on Sunday. Armirail quietly insisted, however, that his rank would remain unchanged despite the honour.
"It's going to make me a bit more confident, but I'll always be an équipier," he said. "This doesn't make me think I'll be a leader someday."