The 2023 season officially ended for the Groupama-FDJ cycling team almost two weeks ago. With hindsight, the sporting department’s director Yvon Madiot draws a complete, precise, and honest assessment of the past year, while looking confidently to the future.
Yvon, it is now time to take stock. How would you rate the team’s 2023 season, out of 10?
(Hesitation) I could give 6.5 with the jury’s encouragement, but let’s say seven because we won a WorldTour Classic. We are above average because if we look at the various UCI rankings, we are above average. We are seventh out of the eighteen WorldTour teams, and we were even in fifth place at one point. We are also in the top-10 of the teams that won the most. If we just speak about figures, we are therefore well above the average. On the other hand, we cannot get a higher mark because we lack a victory in a spring Classic and a stage victory in a Grand Tour. In which case we could have got eight or nine.
“We are now one of the very good Classics teams”
What was said in the post-season meetings?
We agreed that it was a good season, but not exceptional. On the other hand, we also note that we became quite consistent. The catastrophic season doesn’t happen anymore. If we keep the school theme going, we have good students, who are young, who can improve, so that’s promising. Besides that, we’re aware of the fact that we face three/four teams with very, very high resources, and that it is hard to fight. Our goal is obviously to beat them. We may not be quite ready yet, but it will come. We probably won’t be able to win a Grand Tour next year, but we’re absolutely able to win a stage on the Grand Tours, which has been slipping through our fingers for a bit too long (2022 Giro).
What are you the most satisfied with?
Our consistency. We are up there all the time. In the Classics, Stefan and Valentin aren’t missing much to win a big one. The competition is tough, but they are not far from the holy grail. As for the Grand Tours, Thibaut lived up to the expectations in the Giro (5th), where we wore the leader’s jersey with Bruno and won the KOM jersey. The Vuelta is more of a Grand Tour with much promise. We had the red jersey with Lenny, and we were in the mix for ten days. As for the Tour de France, we certainly did not achieve our goal, but it is not a disastrous Tour. Many teams would have been satisfied with ninth place overall. Actually, some teams are happy to finish tenth or twelfth… Not everyone can enter a Grand Tour top-10, especially on the Tour.
“Stefan and Valentin aren’t missing much” in the Classics. What do you mean?
We miss a little bit of experience as a team overall. A few young riders entered the group recently, and these are hard races where you need to know the terrain very well. That’s also the reason why we approached our recruitment as we did. The goal is for our leaders to be fresher, but also to have teammates alongside them for longer. That said, our Classics season is really satisfying. I think we’re the world’s third or fourth best team in that area. We must now succeed in winning one of them. On the Ardennes, it proved a bit more difficult. We’re really waiting for Romain’s progress (DNS this year, editor’s note) to have more cards in the final. With only one rider, it is hard to do well, especially since David was not at his best this year. We need to transpose what we are currently doing on the “Flemish” group, but this has to be done step by step.
“We need to keep progressing, rather than waiting for the wheel of fortune to turn”
Being up there all the time also means being up there on “smaller” races.
Indeed, we weren’t performing very well in past years in the French Cup type-of-races. This year, we made it a goal, and we won it with Paul Penhoët. We identified this lack at the end of last season, and we worked on it with the riders and staff last winter. We had a detailed strategy, so being able to put it into practice says much of our ability to achieve our goals. The new generation has worked a lot for this, but I also believe that we have put them in a trusting atmosphere. I obviously pay tribute to Paul’s success, but also to the work carried out by the staff to achieve this objective. It is also an opportunity to highlight the work of La Conti. It is obviously a great generation, but for us it also was kind of “ready for use”. The riders were ready and knew how to win. It was well prepared in advance, and that helped us a lot.
Is being in the world’s top-10 teams for the 4th season in a row something valuable to you?
Well, for sure! It’s a reflection of the season. We certainly did not win a stage on a Grand Tour which gives the feeling of a job well done for the general audience, but our ranking shows our regularity. To be seventh, you need to be there all the time, on all the races, on all the terrains, from January to October. It’s a great proof of our potential. That said, on a daily basis, we don’t pay attention to points in the races. Above all, we seek to win.
Nineteen victories in 2023, is it satisfying?
It’s below what we hope for, we would always like more, but we also realize that three/four teams win almost half of the races…
The team also got almost thirty second places in 2023. What’s your take on that?
We were sometimes beaten by stronger riders, but I also think we weren’t quite ready at times. We will have to convert these second places into firsts, at least some of them. There has to be a second, and why wouldn’t it be us from time to time? We don’t have Pogacar or Evenepoel, but we work a lot and I honestly think we will turn a handful of second places into victories next year. However, the season assessment doesn’t depend on the number of victories. I think what we need above all is to win some big, notable ones. I think we have to be a little bit stronger. We need to keep progressing, rather than waiting for the wheel of fortune to turn. I don’t expect second place to turn into first just because we’re a little luckier. We must seek to improve, at all levels. If everything comes together, luck will have less impact on the outcome. We have young riders who are proper winners. They don’t need many chances to pull it off. I think we will see this in the coming years.
“I wouldn’t change course for more victories”
Was there ever a question of aiming a little lower to win more?
No, under no circumstances. We really want to win races, that’s true, but we also really want to perform well in the big events. Actually, we want to win them, because for Stefan, David, Valentin, victories are not that far… I would not change course for more victories. In my opinion, this would be a huge mistake. If we proceed in this way, we would be more likely to lower our level because we would necessarily look for smaller races to “secure” a few additional victories. This would definitely not be the right policy or strategy.
We’re approaching the end of the interview and we haven’t talked about the tricolour jersey…
True (smiles). But if we are not bragging about it, it is also because we are the best French team in all the rankings, and I think in general. So, we kind of think that it is almost normal to often have the French champion jersey at home. It reflects our rank on the national scene.
What didn’t you like this season?
There are no longer huge lacks, so it’s now more a matter of details. That said, what I didn’t like is that a rider like Stefan wasn’t more rewarded for everything he does. I sincerely think that he loves this team, and he wants to bring something big to it. I don’t like it when he doesn’t win big races, because he deserves much more results for his seriousness and his motivation. I don’t like it when David Gaudu can’t live up to his expectations. In short, I don’t like it when we don’t win (smiles).
“We are on a rising, steady slope”
Can you tell us a few words about the new riders?
Marc explained our strategy quite well. We are convinced to have our leaders already, but we lacked strength in the final stages of the races, riders strong enough to help our leaders in the money time. I think we made good signings from that point of view, even if it might not be flashy for some. You can always find riders to work at the start of the race, but it’s less easy to find those who are able to be there when things get tough. The profile and personality of the rider are also very, very important. All the riders we signed were humanely in tune with the team and what we wanted to do. This is one of the most essential things. The best example is Marc Sarreau. He comes for a specific project, that of supporting Paul. He’s not coming to win a sprint, and he knows it. He’s also someone we know as a person, and we know there won’t be any problems.
With a few major riders leaving, a chapter closes for the team. Are you ready for what’s next?
The transition is already made. I’ll also remember the words of Thibaut, who is retiring after having carried the team very high for all these years. After his last race, he shared meaningful words to the riders who were there, including a few young ones. He said, “take care of this team”. This is the most beautiful verbal handover that we could have hoped for. I firmly believe that his successors are able to take over. David had a bit of a tricky season, but he wants to take revenge. Stefan and Valentin are our sure bets in one-day races, then our youngsters have the space and time to thrive and win. We have plenty of opportunities to shine with our three experienced leaders, then all these young riders who are developing. There is no worry at all. With the exception of Michael Storer, Arnaud Démare and Jake Stewart, all the guys who won races this season will still be there next year. If we just stick to maths, that already promises fifteen victories or so. The youngsters will also pass a milestone, for sure. Lewis Askey came close several times, and I think he’s going to win a lot once it will click. Paul Penhoët is discreet, but he won twice, and I am convinced that he will be one of the great sprinters of future years. Sam Watson is still a little shy in the race, but he will also take a step forward. I don’t want to be euphoric, but I think we are on a rising, steady slope. The gradient may not be very high, but what’s for sure is that we did not take the wrong route.
What grade do you hope for next year?
I would like us to say eight without even thinking.