Towards Peyragudes altiport on Wednesday, David Gaudu could have lost everything. However, thanks to his mental strength and the valuable support of his teammate Valentin Madouas on stage 17 of the Tour, the French leader managed to overcome this yet another obstacle and once again limited his losses. Seventh on the finish line, after a strong final effort, he is still holding on to his fifth place overall. He even sits four seconds from fourth place on the eve of the last big mountainous stage to Hautacam.
A short but intense day was ahead of the riders on Wednesday. Less than 130 kilometres were to be covered, including the first fifty on the flat, but the menu then featured the Col d’Aspin, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, the Col de Val Louron-Azet as well as the final climb to Peyragudes. Therefore, some 3000 metres of elevation were gathered in just eighty kilometres. As anyone would expect, a lot of riders wanted to be part of the breakaway and no gaps were made before reaching the first climb. Thibaut Pinot then came into action. The French climber opened a first breach with Alexey Lutsenko and crossed the summit of the Col d’Aspin in the lead, about thirty seconds ahead of a chasing group. The two men kept on going in the Hourquette d’Ancizan, and the rider from Groupama-FDJ once again took first at the top. After the downhill and a small valley, the chasers managed to come across, but a very small yellow jersey group was only one minute behind. In the Col du Val Louron-Azet, the race broke apart and the riders were scattered along the road due to the fast tempo set by UAE Team Emirates. “Unfortunately, the bunch never gave a gap to the breakaway, and we quickly understood why”, explained Philippe Mauduit. “We knew in the bus this morning that this scenario could occur, but if we don’t try, we have no chance of succeeding. For sure, we needed to be one step ahead of the big fight to have a chance, but that was not enough. From then on, we only focused on David to defend his place overall”.
“I could not give up”, David Gaudu
After he was distanced seven kilometres from the summit of the third climb, David Gaudu kept Valentin Madouas alongside him, and Thibaut Pinot joined the duo for a few minutes afterwards. “Thibaut spontaneously sat up, caught his breath and gave a hand to David,” said Philippe. “I initially wanted to get a gap to reach the top of the penultimate climb with the best, but I hadn’t the legs to do so”, said the 32-year-old rider. “I’m disappointed. I tried to help David and used the little energy I had left to bring him back to a small group, but it’s really frustrating”. At the third level of the race, David Gaudu therefore tried not to go beyond his limits, while others exploded from the yellow jersey group which was reduced to three men at the top. “I really had no other choice than to take my own pace given the legs I had today”, explained David. “I was already suffering in the Hourquette. I managed to reach the top with Valentin, but I did it with the head. I was slightly better on the penultimate climb, but we stayed at our pace. When I saw how fast the bottom was done, I told myself that many riders would explode before the top, like it was on the Granon. That’s kind of what happened.” After catching Nairo Quintana, Aleksandr Vlasov or Louis Meintjes, the young man started the descent towards Loudenvielle 2’30 behind the yellow jersey, and one minute behind Geraint Thomas and Romain Bardet.
The gaps were relatively similar at the bottom of the last climb, and Valentin Madouas continued to pull, as he was already doing for some twenty kilometres. The all-rounder from Brittany only stopped three kilometres from the summit of Peyragudes, leaving David Gaudu to do the very final. “I have rarely seen Valentin at this level”, claimed David. “I think it clicked for him. I must sincerely thank him, as well as the whole team. Without Valentin today, I wouldn’t have done much… He dragged me on the penultimate climb with Thibaut, then in the valley, then again on the last climb. For that only, I could not give up. In such a situation, it is more the head than the legs that guides you”. The Groupama-FDJ leader then dug deep to finish as best as he could, and he eventually took seventh place on the line, 3’27 behind winner Tadej Pogacar. He also grabbed a few seconds from some of his opponents in the steepest part of the slope. While four overall contenders completed the stage ahead of him on Wednesday, David Gaudu still secured his fifth place overall. “We are with the riders of our level, we have no regrets”, said Valentin. “We tried to manage our climbs as well as possible. David was not in a great day, but we all go through such days. The top-3 guys are probably stronger, but we are in the mix for the top-5!” “He resisted, as he has done for a few days”, said Philippe. “He managed to do it with the help of his mates and in particular thanks to the huge ride of Valentin in the last two climbs”.
“It was not possible for my Tour to end there”, Kevin Geniets
“I think we managed the day rather well”, concluded David, now four seconds behind Nairo Quintana’s fourth place. “We got through it ok, and we need to get through tomorrow again. Everyone is tired, and you need to be mentally strong. If I hold on so much, it is because of the team. They trusted me from the start. I don’t want to give up for them. I’m always at my limits, but the head takes control. It has been working for now, and we are still fighting for the top-5. The podium may be difficult to get, but a top-5 on the Tour is already huge. There is still a stage to overcome, and we will try to do the best in Hautacam”. While Valentin Madouas took thirteenth place of the day, being also 13th overall, Kevin Geniets finished about thirty minutes later after a tough day. Yet, he finished. “I was dropped almost from the start”, said the Luxembourger, who tested negative for Covid. “I’ve been sick for two days and I was left empty today. I was having real trouble breathing. I managed to stay behind the cars, then I was alone in front of the broom wagon for sixty kilometres before joining Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl for the end of the stage. I thought for a moment that I was never going to make it within the time cut, but I told myself that it was not possible for my Tour to end there. I tried to stay calm and to keep going at the highest pace possible. I made it, and I hope it will be better tomorrow.” “It’s not a good experience but it’s an important experience”, concluded Philippe. “These are significant moments in a young rider’s career. He surely has learned a lot about himself and his ability to overcome difficult obstacles”.