“Our leaders go along with the project, that is the most important thing”

As lately announced, the Groupama-FDJ cycling team secured the contracts of his four leaders, namely Thibaut Pinot, Arnaud Démare, Stefan Küng and David Gaudu, for three additional years. Head of the sports department, Yvon Madiot sat down with us to explain what this series of renewals means, both generally and precisely.

Yvon, the four team’s leaders renewed until 2023. What does this mean about the team and about themselves?

I think it actually means the same thing. There is a genuine relationship of trust regarding the project we are offering. They are confident that we put all the means at their disposal, be it sporting, technical, technological, to succeed. In return, we fully trust them, but I prefer saying that it is mainly them who go along with the project, that is the most important thing. It is obviously essential that we believe in them, and we do, but I like to think that they realize that there is what it takes here to reach new heights.

“They are aware of what they have here”

Three-year contracts are not that common in cycling nowadays.

They are still young riders. Thibaut has just turned 30 but he is just coming of age. He will now be able to make the most of his potential, and he is still quite fresh in many areas in my opinion. Same thing for Arnaud. We absolutely don’t believe that he’s at the end of the road, on the contrary. Both are in the prime of their careers. David and Stefan are much younger, but we have high and important plans with each one of them. For Thibaut and Arnaud, it’s right now. The evolution and learning process is over for them. We are really in the heart of the matter and we must get as many results as possible. Regarding David and Stefan, it’s coming very soon.

They all extend at the same time and for the same duration. Does that also mean that the leaderships are well shared and understood?

It was important that everyone had his own register, that the positions were established and announced. These things are pretty clear between us. There is also what we control a little less, namely their way of working together, their ability to find their spot. It also comes down to their own intuitive part, their ability to put aside their ego at some points, or not. For them, this is especially part of a global project. For major world events, we need a leader on each area and also to keep the scoreboard running thanks to someone like Arnaud. Besides, they are able to work together; they know each other very well. From this point of view, it is quite reassuring not to have a rider saying, “I’m leaving”, because there would be a small internal rivalry.

How do you explain your leaders’ loyalty?

I think they are aware of what they have here. There is a lot of discussion between members of different teams to find out what everyone has or will have, to know the situation here and there. I’m not going to say that things are necessarily better at Groupama-FDJ, but the riders know what there is here, they also know very well what there is elsewhere, and the choice appears to be quickly made, so it’s good for us. We also notice that we have more and more requests from outside riders. There is something fairly steady here, even if the team has enormously evolved in recent years. There is a family spirit within a very professional environment.

“Thibaut’s physical maturity will be the difference”

In his renewal’s statement, Stefan used a phrase, which the team made its motto of: the desire to come the pleasure of staying.

It’s a phrase born in Marc’s mouth, a long time ago… but which is obviously still relevant. What this phrase means is that we want to offer professionalism with a family spirit. We have progressed a lot with the different departments, we have a well-organized and very professional team on many areas, but this family spirit, which is important to us, is probably what makes the riders want to stay. For example, we truly appreciate the fact that a guy like Stefan, who joined us coming from an important team, decides to extend his contract after two years without having doubts. It’s very gratifying for us, especially coming from a very recognized, high-level, respected and undoubtedly courted rider. The other three have been here since the start of their career but have certainly already thought about looking elsewhere. They even have certainly inquired about what is happening elsewhere, and despite everything, they also decide to stay. It also means that what we are offering is satisfying.

Regarding Thibaut, should this be the ‘confirmation contract’?

Our job is to place him in good conditions, to offer him everything he needs and to do everything it takes to make it work. If he signs the contract, it means that he knows he’ll find what he needs here. Thibaut is clearly coming into his best years and we are not going to change many things with him anymore. His own physical maturity will be the difference. Thanks to Thibaut, we can even look beyond the next three years, because in addition to working with him and fully trust him, these years will also help us to prepare the rider(s) who will one day take over from him. With Thibaut, we have very solid foundations for the coming years, so we can calmly and without being in a hurry continue to bring him to the highest level while preparing a successor.

At 30, is the best yet to come for Thibaut?

Thibaut always needs to see, understand and sometimes go through a difficult moment before passing a stage. With him, there is always a validation phase before going to the upper floor. We cross the steps one after the other. Today, he is completely ready to perform very well in the biggest races and we have already seen this in recent years.

“Arnaud is a safe bet”

Was the Tour question crucial to Arnaud?

No, because Arnaud mainly wants to win races. He obviously wants to come back to the Tour, and he certainly will, but right now, as long as the routes are interesting for climbers, we want to work around climbers. If next year, we get a Tour with fewer mountains, maybe we will take the start with a two leaders option or a sprint oriented option along with a young climber. We will adjust. Currently, we mostly react according to the route the organizers offer.

You aim to consolidate Arnaud’s role as main sprinter and wins’ provider?

As with Thibaut, having Arnaud Démare on the team is a guarantee to get results. He hasn’t always been lucky, but the wheel of fortune turns, and he is anyway one of the best sprinters in the world. Since 2017, he has won Grand Tour stage every year. It means something. He is a great professional and a safe bet, who is simply missing a few victories, but rather from a quantitative point of view than a qualitative one. Arnaud needs to win 7-8 races a year. It is up to us to offer programs and suggestions for him to achieve this goal. There are obviously Classics that suit him very well, such as Milan-San Remo, Ghent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, to which he can then add events that suit him to get wins. Because that’s what a sprinter lives for, and at that age, he wants to regularly raise his arms. We will try to refocus on this.

Will the team also help Stefan to flourish even more in his leader position?

Stefan is still young and he still needs to learn a little bit, especially in the Classics, which always take a while before being fully mastered. In any case, he has the physical potential, he has the will to do well and he just lacks a bit of experience to confirm all this with major results. Now, he just needs to do small adjustments and gain confidence. Unlike Thibaut and Arnaud, Stefan is still in this “maturing” process.

“David is already a great rider”

You said that his desire to stay was “gratifying”. In your opinion, what led him to make this choice?

Everything is available for him. Stefan is very demanding in terms of technology and equipment development. He is interested in it, thrives on it a lot, and I think he has already found areas for improvement with us and the performance department. He also needs to know that we are working for him and on newer, more technologically advanced equipment. He’s looking for perfection, and so are we. I think he likes it. He might not have found elsewhere what he finds here. Few teams have an equipment-oriented performance department as we have here, where everyone takes part to the process, including riders. I think it took an important part in his decision, in addition to the sense behind of the phrase he said: “the desire to come, the pleasure of staying”.

Was it easy to keep a talented young climber like David?

With him, things went very quickly and very naturally. He’s developing fast, he’s developing well, and we also want him to improve at his own pace. We have Thibaut at the top of his form, his potential, but we also give David the opportunity to prove his worth to us. He has got 2-3 years to finish ‘’hatching’’ and reach his best level. He’s in full growth and completely follows the plan that we together set at the start. He has already started to stand on his own two feet from time to time. We will put him in such situations again, with riders around him, so that he continues to develop.

And giving him more and more responsibilities?

Of course, he will always have bigger responsibilities, but let’s not forget that being alongside Thibaut is also a big responsibility. Being able to accelerate, to make the race explode, on a Tour’s decisive climb, is not a simple task. It’s actually very hard, not everyone is able to do it. He still has to learn a little more, in this role as well as that of a leader in his own right, which he has already managed to fulfil in a good way over the last two years (UAE Tour, Tour de Romandie). David is already a great rider. The hardest part now is managing both the teamwork and leadership sides. I think that in the next two years, he will get the chance to go for a general classification on a Grand Tour. We do not need to rush, we are in the right timing. To be in pole position for a Grand Tour is the last step he’s got to make. And in three years, when his contract and that of Thibaut will expire … we will then have two great leaders for the Grand Tours.