Barely arrived in “La Conti” Groupama-FDJ, Thibaud Gruel quickly asserted himself as a spearhad of the 2023 squad. At almost 19 years old, the French junior time trial champion has already had the opportunity to demonstrate his qualities this season, even achieving the first team’s victory. We sat down with him to get to know the rider and the man better.
For Thibaud Gruel, it all started in the small town of Neuillé-Pont-Pierre, on the outskirts of Tours where he was born. He was just nine years old, had already tried his hand at football, tennis, hip-hop and even chess when he happened to be walking around the local association forum. The “VSNPP”, a catchy – and welcome – acronym designating the village cycling club, was present that day. His memories are a bit blurry. “I don’t really remember why, but I got convinced,” he admits ten years later. “Maybe because I saw different bikes than mountain bikes. I wanted to try it and have my own bike. I registered, I got hooked and so I kept on going. That’s all I needed, I could let off steam, I enjoyed it”. A few months passed, and cycling became his only sporting activity, which remained relative at the time. “It was above all a hobby,” he says. “I started in a cycling school, where it’s more skill games than races. It was really more about fun than sport. We had training on Wednesday afternoon, and we would meet at an old fire station. In the parking lot, we would slalom between the skittles. A little later, we would do cyclocross in the woods just nearby and a few short rides on the road”. Competition appeared progressively. “As we grow up, we do longer and longer races”, he says. “However, I always had a competitive spirit. I wanted to win even when we were doing slaloms.”
Moving up a notch as U17, sports-study program and Thibaut Pinot
Among the youngest categories, between eleven and fourteen years old, Thibaud Gruel gradually found his place against the local rivals. “I was never the best, but I was always in the top-3”, he recalls. “I wasn’t too bad.” At the time, he was also willing to test a bit of everything since he also competed in the woods, fields, and velodromes. “There wasn’t a track in my village, but my club made trips to the city of Descartes”, he specifies. “I would do cyclo-cross and a bit of track in the winter, and mostly road in the summer.” Versatile and always solid on the races, the young boy however did not feel that he was “particularly improving” during the first part of his youth. The real change came during his years as a U17, but it was once again linear. “In my first year U17, I would watch the results and videos of the Madiot Trophy on the internet”, he slips. “I saw that Eddy [Le Huitouze] was going very strong. I wanted to be at that level, do the same races, but I didn’t necessarily have the level yet. I got to do two races and I finished twice in the peloton. At the time, I was happy with it.” But he was not satisfied with it for long. Eager to get better, he applied and was admitted to the sports-study program of Pasteur high school in the city of Le Blanc.
He moved nearly two hours from home, had to stay at boarding school during the week, but his decision paid off. “I had real training programs, and it was getting more serious,” he says. “It looked more like what I have now, although it was much less developed. When I joined the section, I took a big step as a second year U17 and was able to fight in the Madiot Trophy. I was starting to do “proper racing” as they say”. He then started to appear more and more in the results sheets. He was first crowned regional champion, then finished just off the podium twice in the Madiot Trophy, in Plougastel and in the Renazé time trial. Above all, he obtained second place in the French championship at the end of the season. It definitely clicked at that point. “As a child, as soon as I started a sport, I wanted to make it my job”, he says. “When I was playing tennis, I wanted to be Rafael Nadal. When I started cycling, I wanted to be Thibaut Pinot, as we also have the same first name. At first it was more of a dream than a goal, but I always wanted to turn pro. It was after my second year U17 that I started to think that it could be possible, even if I was mostly thinking of my junior years as I knew that they were very important”.
French time trial championship: breakthrough and confirmation
At the start of 2021, a whole new chapter opened at the upper level. Still a member of the sports section of Le Blanc high school, he also prepared his admission to the CREF (Regional Center for Training and Development) of Pays de la Loire. His biggest goals were set for the second half of the season, and in late July, he just missed the podium by nine seconds at the French time trial championship. “At the start of the season, I did some breakaways with the strong guys, so I knew that I was going well”, he says. “But the turning point really was the French championship where I finished fourth and first “Junior 1” behind Romain Grégoire, Pierre Thierry and Lenny Martinez. That’s THE result that made me realize that it was going well, that I had made a step forward”. From this moment, the young man kept on going. He took third place in the Bernaudeau Junior, an UCI race, won a stage in the Tour du Léman, obtained two top-10 finishes in the Trofeo Saarland, a Nations Cup race, and finally took a stage victory in the Philippe Gilbert Juniors. “I didn’t particularly expect all these results, but that was what I wanted, and what I had worked for,” he says. “It was a great end to the season. It was also very special to receive my first call-up with the French team”.
His admission to the CREF was confirmed when he entered his last year in high school, and he therefore prepared his second year as a Junior with this structure: “I didn’t say to myself “I have to go all-in to make it my job”. Above all, I wanted to have a good season as a second year Junior, and I knew that everything would follow”. Starting 2022, the 17-year-old teenager was obviously more expected, but the pressure did not reach him. He secured a podium for his return to racing in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Juniors at the end of February (3rd). It also proved to be the first of his twenty-six (!) top-10 of the season. Always in the mix, he achieved many high results in the Nations Cup’s rounds, finished second in the Trofeo Saarland before another runner-up placement on a stage of the Ain Bugey Valromey Tour. He was just missing the icing on the cake, but it came at the most appropriate time. A year after his “revealing” fourth place in the French time trial championship, he was crowned with the title. “I prepared it a lot,” he says today. “It was a real goal, and I would have been really disappointed to come second. I put pressure on myself, I remember I was very stressed that day, but I did everything right and I was also very strong. It was a very emotional day. This is my first French champion jersey and there are a lot of memories inside it”.
“I wanted to join the Conti, so when I received their offer…”
The memory box was still about to be filled. After two top-10s in Spain, Thibaud Gruel headed to the Giro della Lunigiana, his final preparation before taking off for the world championships in Australia. “I was not in good shape at all when I got there, but I improved day by day, and I already managed to finish fourth in the penultimate stage”, he detailed. “The next day, I rode fifty kilometres alone, and I won solo. It’s a good memory because I reassured myself and raising my arms with the French team in such a great race was the best thing to do before the Worlds”. With his second win of the year in the bag, the young man had an excellent momentum as the season’s major goal was coming up. In Wollongong, he eventually finished tenth in the time trial and seventh in the road race. “I made two top-10s, but most importantly, I felt like it clicked,” he explains. “I prepared for the road race, and I was really in good shape that day. Tactically, it wasn’t excellent. I could have done better than seventh, but it’s still the part of the season that really left a mark on me. It was quite an experience, in Australia, on the other side of the world. I also realized that if I prepared for a race and worked for it in training, it could work out. I think I learnt a lot from that point of view”.
Back in Europe, he took third place in the Philippe Gilbert Juniors, bringing a successful year to an end, which was rewarded with the Vélo d’Or Juniors. “It was a great season, for sure”, he says. “This is my second “turning point” season after that of U17. I think I have achieved what I wanted to do. It met my expectations, even if I would have liked to win more races. It’s the little downside of this season, but I’m not complaining. I managed to be consistent throughout the year, and I did not miss out a lot on the biggest races”. At the end of 2022, an unofficial ranking also positioned him in seventh place worldwide in his age category. “I think it was close to reality”, he adds. “In the Nations Cups, I was never really the best one, but I was in the world’s top-10”. As a logical consequence, the offers did not lack for the young man. But the one of “La Conti” Groupama-FDJ did not suffer any competition. “One of the goals of my season was to join a continental team,” he explains. “And if I had been asked at the beginning of the year which one, I would have said Groupama-FDJ. I had other offers, but I took my decision according to what was best for me. I wanted to join the Conti, so when I received their offer, the choice was quite clear. All the criteria were met, and I was immediately excited”.
An almost perfect start with the Conti, a taste for the Classics
Impressed like everyone else by the 2023 season of “La Conti”, aware of the structure’s setting and the team’s professionalism, Thibaud Gruel was also not worried about moving to Besançon. After living away from the family home for three years, in boarding school or in an individual apartment, he knew what to expect. “It was never an obstacle, I was even rather happy to go to Besançon”, he says. “I have been able to develop my autonomy in recent years, with cycling and what it implies. I was already well prepared.” He now lives in a house with five teammates, French or English-speaking ones. “We learn English, we try to improve as fast as possible,” he smiles. “I get on well with everyone on the team! New accommodation, new training routes, new team: everything is going great, and I am delighted to be here”. As the icing on the cake, the 18-year-old started 2023 with a bang. He took two podiums in his first week of racing in Croatia before netting his first victory in early April in the Circuit des Ardennes. “That’s what I was hoping for, and I knew it was possible,” he says. “Even if Romain and Lenny are champions, other riders managed to do good seasons as a first year U23. I told myself that I could do it too, with seriousness, training, and motivation. It is certainly a year of discovery, but to discover, you need to fight for the win and be up there. It was what I wanted to do, and I saw that I had passed a milestone over the winter. Even if it may seem ambitious, it was what I hoped deep inside”.
Two frustrations remain however from his convincing start to the season. First of all, he was sick and out of shape during his first experiences with the WorldTour team, on the Classic Loire Atlantique and Cholet-Pays de la Loire. “I managed to finish both races and finish in the peloton,” he said. “It was already quite good, but I couldn’t really enjoy the weekend, help the team as I wanted and see what I was worth at my proper level”. Later, he couldn’t take part in the final fight in Liège-Bastogne-Liège Espoirs following an itinerary error by the race motorbikes. “I was disappointed to fail my first goal of the season in this way”, he still regrets. “I think it was possible to achieve a great result a year after Romain. It would have been nice”. Three weeks after placing eleventh on Ghent-Wevelgem, he indeed expected a lot from the “little Doyenne”, since it represents his favorite exercise. “I am quite versatile at the moment”, he describes. “Maybe it will get more precise in the future, although I hope not because I like to be good on all terrains. That said, I’m still a puncher, who likes Flemish or Ardennes-type of races, with short and steep hills. I like short efforts. It can be thirty seconds, like in my victory on the Circuit des Ardennes, but up it can go to 4-5 minutes. When you need to go up fast with power, that suits me well”.
“Bringing my computer, working, following classes, taking tests, it takes my mind off things”
Although he can perform well on both types of Classics right now, he is more cautious for the future. “In the WorldTour, it will rather be the Flemish ones”, he agrees. “You rarely see riders like Van der Poel or Van Aert doing well on the Ardennes, which are better suited to climbers, light riders. In the WorldTour, the level is so high, and I think I will be closer to a Flemish Classics rider than one for the Ardennes”. That’s a piece of luck, as he would choose the Tour of Flanders if he could only win one race in his career: “The most beautiful race after the Tour” according to him. He also hopes to keep his qualities against the clock, not only because the discipline has become “necessary to aim for general classifications” but also because “if you find yourself alone in the lead twenty kilometres from the finish and you aren’t able to ride alone against yourself, that’s a pity…” As for the high mountain, he’s waiting to see. “On the Ain Bugey Valromey Tour in Juniors, I was doing pretty well in the ascents”, he says. “I already did training camps in the mountains, and it was fine. However, the longer it is, the less it suits me for sure. I will never be a pure climber.” The months and years to come will allow him to get to know himself even better as an athlete, but also to build himself a background next to it.
Thibaud Gruel has now started an Operational Commercial Management “BTS”, which he intends to complete in parallel with his professional activity. “I didn’t want to stop everything right away to just ride a bike”, he explains. “I don’t forget that I’m only 18, that nothing is done, and I’m not immune to injury or anything that can prevent me from being a cyclist in the long-term. It’s important to have diplomas and it also allows me to not only think about cycling. Bringing my computer, working, following classes, taking tests, it takes my mind off things. I found my routine. And even if I am studying, the priority still is cycling”.