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It’s 40 years since a French rider won the Amstel Gold Race and 41 since that country last tasted success in Liège-Bastogne-Liège—and there’s no prizes for guessing that Bernard Hinault was the last French name on the palmarès in both cases. Yet, over the course of the coming week, it would be no surprise if both of those long droughts came to an end, with France’s world champion Julian Alaphilippe heavily tipped to win both races and perhaps even achieve the rare feat of an Ardennes triple by taking Flèche Wallonne in between Amstel and Liège.
What’s a little more surprising, though, is that Alaphilippe could end up losing out in any or even all of these races to one of his compatriots. Essentially a lone standard-bearer for his country in the classics over recent seasons, the swashbuckling Deceuninck-Quick-Step star looks set to be challenged by a new wave of French talent in the shape of Benoît Cosnefroy, who was runner-up at Flèche last September, Valentin Madouas, whose powerful engine had helped propel Alaphilippe to the world title just a few days before that, and David Gaudu, the 24-year-old Breton who won last weekend’s final stage of the Tour of the Basque Country, a race that was among the most thrilling of the season so far.
Like most fans, I’ve got a soft spot for specialist climbers, generally slight and fragile-looking figures who can, at their spring-heeled best, leave a race in shreds with attack after darting attack. Gaudu slips into this category perfectly, as his performance in the Basque Country underlined. On the offensive from more than 50km out in a small group that also contained Primoz Roglic, the Groupama-FDJ rider looked very much in the Slovenian’s class as the pair rode away on the final climb, the emblematic Arrate, Gaudu taking the stage and third place overall at its summit, while Roglic claimed the overall title.
In the wake of that triumph, much was made of the fact that Roglic “gifted” the stage to Gaudu by not contesting the final sprint. Yet, as the Jumbo-Visma leader acknowledged, his overall victory owed a substantial debt to the work the young Frenchman had done during their breakaway. “He’s certainly a guy that I’ll have to take very seriously in the races to come,” Roglic said of Gaudu. “What he did here leaves no doubt about that.”
Gaudu described it as the best victory of his career, better even than his two stage wins at the Vuelta a España right at the very end of last season, because it came not from a breakaway, as was the case on both occasions in Spain, but in a direct contest with the likes of Roglic and Tadej Pogacar when the overall result was in the balance. “I raced like I love to race. When I found myself alone with Roglic on the final climb, I told myself that if I was there it was because I was the strongest on the day. At the finish my legs didn’t even feel bad,” Gaudu told L’Équipe.
Can he maintain that form into the Ardennes? His coach David Han reckons it’s very likely, largely thanks to the two crashes that forced him to quit Paris-Nice on the final day and spend five days away from the bike. According to Han, that enforced rest meant Gaudu went to and came out of the Basque Country very fresh.
Han believes Flèche is the Ardennes Classic that best suits Gaudu’s qualities because of the steep finish on the Mur de Huy. The rider, though, prefers Liège, where he was sixth in 2019, because it’s a little more open and tactics can come more into play.
Once past the Ardennes, Gaudu’s attention will turn to the Tour de France, where he’s set to co-lead the Groupama-FDJ attack alongside sprinter Arnaud Démare. Bearing in mind that, like Tour winners Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogacar, the Breton is a former winner of the Tour de l’Avenir—back in 2016, the year before the Colombian and two years before the Slovenian—his opportunity to ride for his own prospects at the world’s biggest race has been a long time coming.
This has been partly the result of being in Thibaut Pinot’s shadow at Groupama. But his team boss Marc Madiot maintains that Gaudu has also needed to be brought on more slowly than Bernal and Pogacar, because he didn’t arrive in the pro ranks almost fully formed and very competitive like that illustrious pair. His manager says that he needed guidance with his training and, particularly, his nutrition. Even so, there have been very clear signs of his potential, not least during the 2019 Tour, when his long stint pace-making high on the Tourmalet rapidly whittled down the lead group and set up Pinot for a famous stage win.
Once he’s through the Ardennes Classics and can turn his focus more fully onto this year’s Tour, Gaudu is sure to play down his chances of contending for a high overall finish. With almost 60km of individual time trialling to negotiate as part of a route that looks significantly less challenging in the mountains than the last couple of Tours, this edition doesn’t appear to suit him too well. Yet, that may benefit him. He’ll be under less pressure from the French media and fans to shine, in the GC battle at least, while the loss of time he’s likely to sustain in the opening TT in Marc Madiot’s backyard in the Mayenne may open up stage-winning opportunities.
There are possibilities for him during the opening few days on his own home ground in Brittany, where the first two stages have tough uphill finishes that will suit punchy climbers. Ultimately, though, Gaudu will be looking to the high mountain stages for success. The double ascent of the Ventoux will suit him well, but the Pyrenean summit finishes at the Col de Portet (on Bastille Day!) and, 24 hours later, at Luz Ardiden look ideal for him—both have lots of steep sections and frequent changes of gradient, perfect terrain for a pure climber like Gaudu, especially if he’s in the same form he showed in the Basque Country.
If he takes flight there—on the hardest mountain stages in the final days of the toughest race of the season –everyone’s expectations for 2022 will be raise. Like fellow Tour de l’Avenir champions Bernal and Pogacar, David Gaudu would become a true yellow jersey contender and perhaps even the rider that France has been waiting for since Hinault, himself a proud Breton, last won the Tour for them in 1985.
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