When Thibaut Pinot returned to the Groupama-FDJ team bus after his triumph atop the Col du Tourmalet at the 2019 Tour de France, one of the first things he did was to put an arm around David Gaudu and say: “Merci”.
With Julian Alaphilippe in the yellow jersey and Pinot in the ascendancy, and both riders pictured with President Macron atop the Tourmalet, France went into overdrive, sensing that a first home Tour winner in 34 years was imminent. That failed to materialse but Gaudu’s contribution – whittling down the favourites’ group and placing 15th himself – didn’t go unnoticed, and it suggested there’d be plenty more opportunities in the years ahead.
“It was extraordinary what he did – that was the future,” Pinot himself said in his post-stage press conference.
The future is now. As the crash that derailed Pinot on the opening day of last year’s Tour continues to lay waste to his 2021 campaign, Gaudu finds himself thrust into the spotlight, handed team leadership at the age of 24.
“I’m ready for it,” he confidently tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview.
In purely physical terms, it’s difficult to argue. The Frenchman’s promise has been evident since his younger days – particularly since he won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2016 – and he has continued his steady line of improvement this season. In every other way, his experiences two summers ago will have prepared him for what’s to come.
“The 2019 Tour de France was an absolute roller coaster,” he says. “I probably learned more in those three weeks than I did in the first three years of my career.”
That year’s race started out well for the team, as they limited their losses in the early team time trial before Pinot impressed at La Planche des Belles Filles and was the only rider capable of following Julian Alaphilippe at Saint-Etienne. However, disaster struck when the team were caught out in the stage 10 crosswinds and Pinot lost 1:40.
“From then on, this sort of rage came out of the team. We told ourselves it was unfair to have been taken by that split so we wanted to set things right, and it turned into this desire to give everything we had," Gaudu says.
“We got to the Pyrenees and Thibaut crushed it. The Tourmalet was an honour for me personally. I was able to show myself to the world as a climber, on a true col, a mythical col. And Thibaut was so grateful for what I’d done, which made it all the more special."
Pinot looked like the strongest rider in the race and was back within touching distance of the yellow jersey but fortunes changed in the Alps and disaster struck again – this time terminal. Pinot suddenly pulled up on stage 19 and left the race in tears, not knowing the reason behind the sudden muscle problem in his right thigh.
“He left the Tour and left everything on the bike,” Gaudu says. “There was just this sense of shock and intense disappointment.”
The experience was no doubt an illuminating one for a 22-year-old and will surely help him understand what’s at stake as he takes the baton from Pinot. He’s reluctant to see this as a changing of the guard – insisting Pinot, now, 31, is “still a winner” and that he himself is “still inexperienced” – but it nevertheless represents a significant step in his career.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of that Tour was the French fervour. “Bernard Hinault in 1985,” Gaudu chips in immediately when we begin to broach the subject of France’s long wait for a home champion. Each new talent is hopefully seen as the drought-ender and the sense of urgency and impatience has grown with each passing year, notably since the emergence of Pinot and Romain Bardet. For Gaudu, there’s the added parallel of hailing from the same corner or France as Hinault: Brittany, where this year’s Tour begins next Saturday.
“Being a French rider at the Tour de France, and especially being a French GC rider at the Tour de France, it’s not the easiest thing in the world,” he says. “France places a lot of expectation on the riders, every time.”
The challenge, he says, is dealing with that pressure. It’s fair to say Pinot has struggled with it himself, and Bardet has followed suit this year in choosing Italy over the glare of France in July. But Gaudu sounds mature beyond his years when he talks of channeling that fervour into a “force” that can propel him forward rather than hold him back.
“For me, the pressure is there, and it can be scary, but it’s also something that you can use to your advantage,” he says.
“Pressure is something that allows you to focus your energy. It’s a case of keeping it inside you and, when an important moment comes, letting it all out in one go.”
'Everyone has their own rate of progression'
Gaudu’s first shot at the Tour de France comes in his fifth season as a professional, having joined FDJ on the back of his l’Avenir triumph at the age of 19. Interestingly, the stage he won at that race is almost identical to stage 9 of this year’s Tour, going over the Col des Saisies, Col du Pré, and Cormet de Roselend ahead of the big summit finish at Tignes.
Gaudu was an active presence throughout his neo-pro campaign, the highlights being a top-10 at La Flèche Wallonne and a stage win and second overall at the Tour de l’Ain. His second year was arguably quieter but his race programme represented a big step up in standard, including his Tour de France debut. 2019 was something of a breakthrough, thanks to his performances as a mountain domestique at the Tour de France, but also his podium at UAE Tour, 6th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 5th at Tour de Romandie and Milano-Torino, and 11th at Il Lombardia.
Last year, his Tour was disrupted by the same opening-day crash as Pinot but he went on to double up with the Vuelta a España and came away with two stage wins and eighth overall. Despite a subdued showing at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné - where he was still in the top 10 - he has kicked on this year, with a win at the Ardèche Classic, 3rd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and 5th at Itzulia Basque Country, where he won a scintillating final stage.
"I’m improving all the time, in all aspects,” he says. “Every year I try to reach a new level.”
A few years ago, Gaudu’s rise might have appeared speedy, or at least within the normal parameters of what you’d expect from a rising Grand Tour prospect. And yet, in light of the youth revolution that has swept the sport, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking he’s not going anywhere at all.
Big races are being won at an ever-younger age, the prime example being Tadej Pogačar, who won the Tour de l’Avenir two years after Gaudu and won the Tour de France last year at his first attempt.
“At the end of the day, everyone has their own rate of progression. Me, I’ve been getting a little better each year. It might be that I’m going to reach my best level in, say, three years. Some find it immediately, but everyone has their own path,” he says.
“I don’t find it difficult to deal with, and I certainly don’t get worried when I see guys younger than me winning races. I’m someone who’s very focused on my own thing, and I stick to the course of action I’ve set myself. It’s almost impossible to feel like I’m failing when I know where I want to go and how I want to get there. In my head it’s clear.”
It has become clearer since last year’s Vuelta, which was his first real tilt at Grand Tour leadership, especially when Pinot pulled out after two days. Gaudu struggled early on and was slumped in 20th place at the end of the first week, but then came storming back to win two mountain stages in the second half of the race. By then, the GC was far from his mind but his successes nevertheless propelled him to eighth place by Madrid.
“I’ve gained a lot of mental strength since that Vuelta,” he says. “I learned never to give up. Even when things aren’t going well, they can turn around in a way you don’t expect.
“The Vuelta definitely consolidated my desire to ride for GC. Now it’s about being consistent from three weeks, and that’s mainly what I’m hoping for from the Tour this year.”
Gaudu readily acknowledges that he’s not yet the finished article, highlighting his time trialling as the area with the most room for improvement. After a dearth of racing against the clock in recent years, the Tour organisers have pivoted back and included some 58 kilometres on this year’s route.
"It’s something I’ve been working on a lot this year,” he says. “I’ve started to feel really good on the TT bike so it’s something I’m liking more and more, and not fearing."
'MPCC riders can be up at the front'
Where Gaudu will really be able to express himself is uphill. He’s a lightweight rider who places himself over at the punchy end of the climbing spectrum. “I’m best on the super steep gradients,” he says.
“I’ve always said the Tour of the Basque Country is the race that suits me best, and the stage I won was perfect for me. It was wild and open from the start – like in the U23s.”
The Tour de France, however, is not the U23s, and the past decade has been characterized by restrained racing controlled by one particularly strong team – Jumbo-Visma last year and Ineos for so long before that.
“For sure it’s tough to face the big squads who roll out their trains for the mountains, but when you’re at 100 per cent of your potential, there’s no reason why you can’t pull something off in those circumstances.”
Gaudu similarly prefers to see the glass as half full when we turn the conversation to the spectre of doping, in light of Pinot’s recent concerns over a sport operating “at two speeds” – a term coined in the EPO-fuelled post-Festina years of the new millennium. Pinot had resorted to a cortisone injection for the back injury sustained on the opening day of the 2020 Tour and said he was shocked at the effect, worrying how many riders were using corticosteroids out of competition or under therapeutic use exemptions.
“To be honest, I really don’t have an opinion on that,” Gaudu says. “It’s not something for me to worry about. It’s up to the UCI and the authorities to manage all that. The more I start thinking about those things and taking any sort of stance, the more energy it takes away from what I’m able to do on a bike.”
And yet, despite appearing to differentiate himself from Pinot in that respect, he nevertheless suggests there has existed a small element of doubt, when talking about his stage win in the Basque Country.
“I enjoyed the whole week in the Basque Country enormously. I felt good and ended up being up there. That shows that even riders who belong to the MPCC [Movement for Credible Cycling] can be up there are the front. I was at 100 per cent and was able to be up there with the best riders, and you see that everyone is beatable.”
Whether everyone is beatable at this year’s Tour de France remains to be seen. He’s certainly not putting any undue pressure on his shoulders, but appears fully focused as the start of the race, just a stone's throw from his home, draws nearer.
“It will already be a great moment because the Tour sets off from home. After that, it’ll be a case of getting through the first week as calmly as possible, losing as little time as possible and trying to do a decent time trial. Then we’ll get to the mountains, where things will fall into place.
“I’m ruling nothing out. I’ve no idea where I’d put myself. Whether I do top 20, top 15, top 10, top five… the result isn’t the biggest thing, so I don’t have any big expectations there.”
That maybe the case from within, but it won’t be from the outside. France is still looking for an answer to its prayers, and as he steps out of Pinot’s shadow and into the spotlight, all eyes will be on David Gaudu for the next three weeks.
As Deputy European Editor, Patrick is responsible for Cyclingnews' long-form and in-depth output. Patrick joined Cyclingnews in 2015 as a staff writer after a work experience stint that included making tea and being sent to the Tour de Langkawi. Prior to that, he studied French and Spanish at university and went on to train as a journalist. Rides his bike to work but more comfortable on a football pitch.
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