The margin of victory was tight and the scope for error was non-existent, but Damien Gaudin (Europcar) emerged triumphant from the game of inches in Houilles to claim a surprise win in the prologue of Paris-Nice on Sunday.
After more than five years of trying, it all came down to a fraction of a second for the Frenchman, who held his nerve to take his first professional win, edging out Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM).
“Today was the first time I ever took so many risks in a race and I think I needed to,” Gaudin said afterwards. “Chavanel was only a few hundredths of a second behind, I think, so if I’d braked any more I wouldn’t won. It still hasn’t sunk in, it’s just a lovely surprise.”
The consensus beforehand was that the technical 2.9 kilometre time trial might throw up a surprise winner; a sprinter perhaps, someone who might thrive on the repeated explosive accelerations required by the course’s 13 corners. The name Damien Gaudin was certainly not on anyone’s lips before the start, but his pedigree over a similar distance on the track – he is the reigning French pursuit champion – meant that he harboured quiet ambitions of his own.
“I’m used to racing the pursuit and doing a lot of track, so it’s a similar effort in a lot of ways: a violent effort,” said Gaudin, who has also won a slew of national titles in the team pursuit and Madison over the years for good measure.
On the road, however, Gaudin’s results have been rather more modest, with a second place finish in the prologue of the 2011 Tour of Luxembourg behind Fabian Cancellara perhaps the stand-out performance before now. Gaudin boasts a similar physique to Cancellara – “a rider who makes me dream, a specialist,” he said – and that result was an important boost to his morale.
“I did everything I could to prepare for today, but I still needed to take some risks too,” Gaudin said. “I had good sensations and I felt good going around, but in a race that only lasts three and a half minutes it’s still hard to tell just how well it’s going.”
Such was the competition for places in Europcar’s Paris-Nice line-up that Gaudin was unsure of his own berth until shortly before the start, and that he wanted to repay manager Jean-René Bernaudeau’s faith by delivering a solid performance in the prologue. “We had twelve riders who were up for going but only eight places. Thankfully Jean-René picked me, and I decided to focus everything on the prologue.”
With his robust build and qualities as a rouleur, it is hardly surprising that Gaudin eschews the grand tours – he was lanterne rouge in the 2009 Vuelta a España – in favour of the cobbled classics. Indeed, Gaudin secured his professional contract by winning the espoirs Paris-Roubaix in 2007.
After watching his close friend and sometime Madison partner Sebastien Turgot finish third in last year’s elite Paris-Roubaix, Gaudin has dreams of springing a similar surprise on the famous old velodrome this April.
“I’m a specialist for the cobbled classics and now my focus is on Paris-Roubaix,” he said. “I’ve shown what I’m capable of now and I hope that this result is the déclic for me."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.