Next Gen Climber

From issue 74 • Words by James Startt with images by Startt and Yuzuru Sunada

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At 5-foot-8 and 127 pounds, the 21-year-old French rider David Gaudu may be slight in stature, but as a neo-pro last year he was already playing hardball with some of the biggest names in cycling. As winner of the 2016 Tour de l’Avenir, the world’s top under-23 stage race, Gaudu made a seamless transition into the pro ranks, scoring impressive results in several UCI WorldTour races including a top-10 finish in Belgium’s prestigious Flèche-Wallonne classic. We recently caught up with the FDJ climber for an in-depth interview.

David, you won the 2016 Tour de l’Avenir and turned professional a year ago with the FDJ team, where you’ve had some decent results. But turning pro always represents a big jump. How was it for you when you look back on your rookie year? Well, I’d have to say it went really well. Like you said, it is a big jump into the pro ranks, but physically I felt I made that step pretty easily really. Already in the springtime I had good results at the Volta a Catalunya and the Flèche Wallonne, I won a stage at the Tour de l’Ain in August and I had a strong end of season. The only down moment came during the Critérium du Dauphiné when I fell ill and had to drop out.

Yes, you had a great ride in Catalunya, going head-to-head with the likes of Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde. I think it was on stage 4, a hilly stage, where you made the final break with them. What was that like? I mean, heck, you had only been professional for a couple of months at that point…. Yeah, wow, that was really something and it is definitely not a moment I will forget soon. When it actually happened, I was just focused on the race. Marc Soler attacked on the last climb, about 10 kilometers from the finish, and I felt good so I just went with him. At first I sensed that there was no one behind us, so I wanted to do my best and hopefully get a good result. After the summit, we had a technical descent and I followed Soler’s line. During the descent I sensed that someone else had bridged up to us, but I didn’t know who. It was only after the descent, when we hit this long straightaway, that I looked around to see who was there. And first I just saw Valverde, but I couldn’t see who was behind him. It was only when I looked around again that I realized who else was there. And I was like, “Oh fuck, there is Froome too!” Suddenly, I realized I was there with the big guns. But that night when I was back in the hotel and saw the images on TV, that’s when it really hit. I was just like, “Wow! Is that really me there?” It was crazy! And I was getting all of these messages from people, so I knew that I had really accomplished something.

Did you have any idols growing up? Well, yes, and one was Valverde. I always really loved watching him race, him and Alberto Contador. I love their attacking spirit. They are always going for it, always trying to win.

You continued to get good results with a top-10 finish at Flèche Wallonne. You even attacked Valverde, the eventual winner, on the final climb up the incredibly steep Mur de Huy…. Yeah, it’s funny, because I didn’t really feel good much of the day. It was a really hard race with lots of crosswinds and all. It was only on the Mur where I felt decent. The last time up, I just focused on myself and how I felt physically. I didn’t think about the fans or the other cyclists. It was just like I was doing an all-out uphill effort. I saw the signs “500 meters…400 meters…300 meters” and, finally, with 250 meters remaining, I just thought: “Hey, nobody knows me. Now is the time to take my chance.” It didn’t last very long and Valverde was on my wheel quickly, but I felt good.

Timing is everything on the Mur de Huy. In retrospect did you attack too early? With experience, would you have waited a little longer? Yeah, perhaps, and maybe I would have finished in the top five. But maybe not. Maybe I would have just finished ninth following wheels. And in that case I wouldn’t have had the same feeling. I mean, it was really satisfying just knowing I had the legs to attack in the final of a race like Flèche.

You had to wait a few months before your first victory. It came in August on stage 3 of the Tour de l’Ain, when you raced away with your team leader, Thibaut Pinot. You finished together but you were the one that came across the line first…. Yeah, I had really targeted that race. It came at a good moment in the season. A lot of great riders have had their first pro win there, guys like Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut. And already I had finished fifth overall there the year before. Anyway, Thibaut was really motivated, as it was a hard stage and already in the team meeting we decided to attack on the final climb. And, well, the race turned out to be a carbon copy of the team meeting as the two of us got away alone together and even if Thibaut didn’t raise his arms in victory I think he was happy to see me do it, since he had won here himself as a young pro. It was just a great memory.

Did you ride a lot with Pinot last year? Well, not so much in the beginning of the season as he was focused on preparing for the Giro d’Italia, but in the second part of the season we raced quite a bit together. He’s amazing. He’s always hungry, he always wants to do something, even when he doesn’t have the legs. He’s a real warrior.

What did you learn the most this past year? Well, I’d say I gained a lot of experience in races that will come in handy this year. And, in addition, I simply gained real physical strength and power.

Each climber is different. Some like a good hard tempo from the bottom of the climb, others are known for their accelerations. What kind of a climber are you? I’m really a climber that goes coup by coup. I don’t like it much if the pace is long and sustained. Doing a big tempo from the bottom of the climb does not interest me too much. I’m more explosive. I prefer it when there are a lot of attacks, when there are moments when the race comes together and than explodes again, when the rhythm is inconsistent.

After a year in the pro ranks, which climber has impressed you the most? Well, that would still have to be Alberto [Contador]. I just loved the way he could always race at the front and how he always went on the attack. It didn’t matter if the odds were stacked against him, he never backed off and just kept attacking. It was amazing to see.

What race inspires you the most? Well, there are two I would say: the Tour de France, of course, but also the Tour of Lombardy. I did it last year for the first time and really loved it. And I think with some experience, it’s a race that I could really do well in.

Your FDJ team just got a big new sponsor, Groupama, and they have announced that, in addition to Arnaud Démare and Pinot, you will have a lot more freedom. What races do you plan to focus on? Well, I will continue to focus on weeklong stage races and classics like Flèche and Lombardy. I’m going to do races like the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie this spring. But I also plan to do my first grand tour, and so it will likely be the Vuelta a España. There will be certain races where I will perhaps ride for Thibaut, but there will be others where I will have my own cards to play and be more protected.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.