DISCLAIMER: I started writing this article last night (12th June) and since then it’s undergone at least two changes as a result of actual news happening RIGHT NOW. If it’s wrong when I hit publish, I can only apologise. But the thought process is still valid, I hope).
There’s something about a French team at the Tour de France. The adoration and expectation go hand-in-hand for the teams from the home nation at La Grande Boucle, with the pressure to succeed creating major headaches for team managers as they seek to select the absolute best combination of riders to put themselves in with a chance of glory.
But what does glory entail, relatively speaking, in an era when winning the greatest race on the cycling calendar feels out of reach for all but two or three superhuman individuals, none of whom happen to be French? What is the next best thing, how can it be quantified, and in the case of (arguably) France’s premier team Groupama-FDJ, how can these headaches be reconciled when you have multiple options, and tension within the team appears to be nearing boiling point? With three key players all staking a claim on a place, these are questions team boss Marc Madiot must answer, and fast.
It's been a turbulent 2023 for Groupama, with perhaps less success than they would have expected to enjoy by this stage in the season. David Gaudu flew high at Paris-Nice, proving he could mix it with the best by finishing second on GC, sandwiched between the two protagonists of last year’s Tour, Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard. Yet his form has tailed off dramatically since then, with allergies scuppering his run at the spring Classics and an inexplicably poor showing at the Dauphiné leaving young pretender Lenny Martinez to fulfil the role of leader in the team.
Yet Gaudu achieved 4th place on last year’s Tour podium and insisted in an interview following the Dauphiné that historically, a poor performance for him there has not translated into bad luck at the Tour. Checking the facts, he has something of a point. He was 17th at last year’s Dauphiné (and 4th in the Tour). In 2021, he was consistent, making the top ten at the Dauphiné (9th) and narrowly missing out at the Tour (11th). In 2019 he was 40th at the Dauphiné and managed 13th at the Tour, and aged just 21 his first ever Tour in 2018 resulted in 34th on GC (he was 45that the Dauphiné that year).
But to turn 30th position, where he finished this year's Dauphiné, into a podium spot at the Tour, seems a tall order.
The second piece in the ill-fitting Groupama jigsaw is Arnaud Démare. The sprinter is returning to form after a difficult start to the year, contracting covid and struggling to find his legs on his return, before becoming a father for the first time in April. The past couple of weeks have seen the real Arnaud Démare re-emerge, as he took a stage win and the points jersey at the Boucles de la Mayenne, followed by a win among a top field at the Brussels Cycling Classic. Most recently, he took second place on stage 2 of the Tour de Suisse, where he finished ahead of Wout van Aert.
So Démare has absolutely proven his form. However, the division of labour involved in adding a sprinter into a decidedly GC-heavy mix could be the deciding factor, unless Madiot is able to play it smart and add riders who are able to perform multiple functions to his team.
The final piece of the puzzle then, is Thibaut Pinot. In terms of form, two second places on stages of this year’s Giro d’Italia, along with taking home the maglia azzurra and finishing 5th overall backed up his claim to be a part of the squad at the final time of asking. Questions over the fatigue Pinot will carry from the Giro could be posed, as received wisdom (and plain logic) would have it that the Giro-Tour double is a tough ask on the body, but it’s difficult to argue against including Pinot, the romantic hero of the cycling world, loved by many, not just within his home nation.
Team manager Marc Madiot will have to weigh up the relative worth of having the three big personalities within his team at this year’s Tour. His job is complicated by the voices of dissent coming from within the team, most vociferous among them Gaudu himself, who has openly expressed disdain towards Démare (in an acrimonious public spat that reared its head early this year) and who remained purposely tight-lipped over the inclusion of Pinot in the squad just a couple of weeks ago.
Beyond the three top men at Groupama, Madiot will have to consider support riders. Strong all-rounders Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas have both proven to be steady support for David Gaudu in the past, and look likely to feature, leaving three spots open. How many climbing domestiques, and how many for Démare’s lead-out train, are the central points of difference that could decide one way or the other, which riders are ultimately left at home come July.
Head vs Heart
Is it possible to quantify the relative worth of each rider, in terms of what they might bring to a Groupama-FDJ very much in need of a stand-out performance at the Tour this year?
Cold, hard facts state that the most value is to be gained from a high GC placement – consider Gaudu’s fourth place last year, which accrued the team a not inconsiderable 575 UCI points, compared with a possible 120 for a stage victory.
This year under an overhaul of the points system, fourth place will be worth 750 points, and although the values awarded for stage victories has also increased, to 210, there’s little doubt as to where the UCI places value. The French public too yearn for a GC contender to recapture the romance of the past, but in an era where none of the French teams can afford to compete with the likes of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates, a podium would be as good as a victory. Gaudu only needs to go one place better to achieve this, and despite his patchy form, the race for the third spot at this year’s Tour currently looks wide open.
Furthermore, Gaudu represents the ‘now’ for Groupama. Contracted through to the end of 2025, another strong performance at the Tour this year will likely see Madiot build around the Breton for years to come, as the older protagonists move on to pastures new, or leave the sport altogether. Gaudu is an investment which Madiot can ill afford to squander, though his inconsistencies will leave the team open to criticism and increased scrutiny.
In the middle of the debate, the notion of stage wins. Despite the value placed on the general classification, there’s no denying that Tour de France stage winners garner headlines, and there’s little more visceral as a sports fan than the opportunity to leap from your seat and scream with joy as your favourite rider or team surges to victory. Despite the depth of the field at this year’s Tour, Démare’s return to form along with his versatility – being able to combine pure speed with resilience on more challenging parcours – means that he could be in with a chance to contend for potentially 8 stages (6 flat, and at least 2 of the 6 hilly stages).
Which brings us to the ‘heart’ of the matter. What would be more poignant, or universally enjoyed, than success for Thibaut Pinot at this year’s Tour? The animal-loving, softly spoken veteran of 9 Tours de France captured yet more hearts on the recent Netflix Unchained series, just as he has among the cycling faithful over the course of his career, and to see him go out in style would mean a great deal to many.
The question remains over whether he can manage the pressure, along with being able to deliver in a race where the full-on battle being waged between Pogačar and Vingegaard will leave space for climbers to target stages. Yet how beautiful would it be, if he could get one more 'for the road' and raise his arms at the Tour one last time? Surely, such an outcome renders all arguments over relative value worthless. As many would agree: nothing could top a Pinot stage win, on his farewell Tour.
A short-lived problem
With Démare’s contract coming to an end this year (he’s rumoured to be heading to Arkea-Samsic), and Pinot retiring, it’s mercifully not a problem that will face Madiot again, at least in this configuration.
In climber Lenny Martinez, puncheur Romain Gregoire and sprinter Paul Penhoet the future of the French team is in safe hands – all three have taken their maiden victories this year, including most recently Lenny Martinez at today’s Denivale Mont Ventoux challenge, so whatever the fallout from this year’s Tour, there will be hope among the French faithful, that the new generation can usher in a new era of French dominance.
With official team news likely to drop later today regarding the team selection, and early rumours suggesting it will be Démare who misses out, much of this speculation may immediately be rendered moot. However, it speaks to a wider problem within the sport that will be faced year-on-year by managers of teams who aren’t built around one rider – where does the value lie in modern cycling?
With Tour de France teams now limited to 8 riders, instead of 9, it puts even more pressure on, with traditional pure sprinters and their lead-out trains seemingly falling out of favour in general, and strong all-rounders the new hot property. Going forward, will team bosses look to spread their bets and invest in multiple types of rider, or specialise and unite behind a GC cause – Patrick Lefevre at Soudal-QuickStep being one man who has already made this shift as the team embrace the Remco Evenepoel era.
As for Groupama, with Madiot confirming just half an hour ago that Gaudu would lead the Tour team, he will hope that the drama is limited simply to celebration come July. With Pinot also named in the squad and Démare missing out, the French public will be looking on keenly to ensure his decisions won't backfire, as he leaves arguably the team's best chance for a stage win on the bench, choosing not to take the risk and include all three in his 2023 Tour equation.