The "1990 Generation" of French riders is already to the fore with Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot leading French cycling at WorldTour level, but the generation of climbers born in 1995-1996 is perhaps the next big thing in France, as the Tour de l'Avenir should confirm this week in the Alps.
The French national team on home soil comprises Aurélien Paret-Peintre, winner of the Classique des Alpes as a junior and now part of AG2R La Mondiale's feeder squad in Chambéry, and Léo Vincent, who has signed a neo-pro contract with FDJ. It also includes Cofidis stagiaire Matthias Le Turnier and, currently the most impressive rider of this new wave, David Gaudu - who placed 5th at the Tour de l'Ain among the professional peloton, and will join FDJ in 2017 and 2018.
"We have known each other very well and for a long time," Gaudu told Cyclingnews on Tuesday at the start of the Tour de l'Avenir's time trial stage. "As juniors, Aurélien [Paret-Peintre] was certainly the best of us and since then, leadership has changed all the time. For my part, I was perhaps not the most successful climber but I was consistent and my development was really step by step."
The Tour de l'Avenir could be Gaudu's way of signing off on his last season in the under-23 category. Racing in a chasing group on Saturday's opening stage in the Auvergne region, he didn't follow his British rival Tao Geoghegan-Hart in a final move and lost two minutes like the rest of the peloton. "At the end we will see if Tao will win the race by two minutes or if he will be tired from his breakaway," Gaudy said. "I perhaps made a mistake. But the true race starts in the mountains."
Gaudu will be supported by a strong French team, although roles can be easily reversed if things take an unexpected turn. The national coach, Pierre-Yves Chatelon, believes "cycling remains a very unpredictable sport". In the same way, it is quite tough to gauge how Gaudu will fare in the pro peloton.
"At his age and in his style he is at the same level as Pinot or Bardet," Chatelon says. "But we can't compare them, everyone is different and we never know how a young rider will adapt to professional level."
There were very tempting comparisons raised in 2014, when the then 17-year-old-cyclist challenged Bardet and Pinot on the Planche-des-belles-Filles climb, according to Strava. He covered the ascent six seconds slower than Pinot but fifteen seconds quicker than Bardet, which was enough to thrill most of his Breton supporters. However, Gaudu is careful to point out that his performance was made on a single climb and during a training camp, far from the Tour de France.
Gaudu knows it is difficult to cope with the pressure and expectation – how many French riders have been rated as Hinault's successor since the last tricolore success at the Tour in 1986 and collapsed afterwards? Thus, he says he has "no particular pressure" for his first two seasons at FDJ.
"I have no idea how I will develop," Gaudu said. "I guess I will learn a lot in my first year. And of course I would be happy to offer some support to Thibaut Pinot in the mountains."
His transfer could be a great addition to Madiot's squad, which needs climbers, and even more so with Alexandre Geniez set to join to AG2R La Mondiale in 2017.
The latter team, by the contrary, is very rich in climbing specialists and this is where most of the young French talents for the mountains want to go at the moment, with the exception of Gaudu, who was monitored, coached and supported by FDJ in the past few years.This is one of the reasons why Gaudu is not a very conventional climber. Based in Saint-Brieuc, in the northwest of Brittany, he doesn't want to move to Nice or another sunnier spot like Warren Barguil tried to do before moving back home.
"I am feeling well in Brittany," he confided. "I have medium mountains in which to train, in the Monts d'Arrée, and more importantly, all my personal environment is there. Brittany is part of my balance".
Another characteristic of this young talent is his build. At 1.72m and weighing in at 54 kg, Gaudu is the archetype of a "pure climber" that most of the team managers are afraid to recruit.
"But cycling is a matter of power, not of a size," he said, adding with a laugh: "It might be an asset to be small. The other riders don't watch you too much, because they think you are not able to win!"
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