Things change fast in WorldTour racing. For the Groupama FDJ team, despite an embarrassing internal spat between two of its leaders, climbing star David Gaudu and seasoned sprinter, Arnaud Démare, the 2023 season kicked off pretty well.
Gaudu, heir apparent to the soon-to-be-vacated team leader's throne, occupied for so long by Thibaut Pinot, looked to be in the best form of his career as he started the season. In mid-March, all seemed set fair for a tilt at the Tour de France podium.
Seventh place overall in the Tour des Alpes Maritimes was followed by near misses in February's semi-Classics, Faun Ardèche and Faun Drôme, while Gaudu's third place finish to Tadej Pogačar in Paris-Nice was seen as a confirmation of his coming of age.
That was followed up by fourth overall, behind another Tour de France contender, reigning champion Jonas Vingegaard, in the Tour of the Basque Country.
Gaudu's form was enough too, to end the rumbling debate about who was top dog in the team, after Pinot announced his (probable) retirement at the end of 2023, just as Gaudu's long-standing beef with team elder, sprinter Démare, was outed on social media.
For Marc Madiot and Philippe Mauduit, the managerial gurus at the heart of the French team, it had meant a few weeks of juggling egos. But once Gaudu had duked it out with Pogacar in the 'Race to The Sun,' any debate over leadership seemed academic.
“We knew since last year that David was close to the best riders,” Mauduit said as Paris-Nice ended. “This week he's shown he's capable, not just on one day, but over a week. We're going to savour what he's achieved, learn the lessons, and work on all the little details that we can improve.”
The animosity between Démare and Gaudu was made painfully public as the season began, when, in what he thought was a confidential online chat, the Breton rider criticised the sprinter for showing up at the altitude training camp in Tenerife, predominantly focussed on the team's climbing group.
“He chose to come,” Gaudu, fourth in the 2022 Tour de France, said, hinting heavily that Démare was out of his depth. “His fault if he gets burnt!”
“He (Démare) wants to be selected for the Tour. But that's no shoe-in. I don't want him to come to the Tour, (but) to stay at home. The good thing is we don't speak to each other and almost never ride together...he knows I don't want him at the Tour.”
Gaudu had an impressive Paris-Nice but has struggled for form since (James Startt)
Understandably, Madiot and Mauduit were perplexed and embarrassed by Gaudu's comments. “I know they will never be best mates,” Madiot said of the spat, “but this childishness has to stop.”
Meanwhile, Pinot's retirement announcement was at best, ambivalent. He might change his mind, he said, if he won the French national road race. He might even ride this year's Tour too.Now, with Gaudu suffering so dramatically through the Ardennes Classics, just as Pinot finds form in the build-up to the Giro d'Italia, that's a prospect that seems increasingly likely and which the team accepts is possible.
Pinot will be starting the Giro, which this year has a heavy emphasis on time trials, but with so many mountain stages in the final week, a high overall finish still seems possible. Yes, his racing against the clock remains average at best — he was 80th, for example, in the recent 6.8 kms prologue of the Tour of Romandie — but in contrast, he finished second to eventual overall winner Adam Yates, in the Swiss race's 'queen' stage to Thyon 2000.
A dashing return to his best will warm the hearts of his devoted army of French fans. The focus will always be on Pinot's climbing form, which is now showing signs of edging close to his best, after his ride in Romandie and a strong showing in April's triptych of one-day races in eastern France, through the climbs of the Jura and Doubs.
Now it is Gaudu, who abandoned Liège-Bastogne-Liège, while clad in leg warmers, whose status looks uncertain. In fact, he did not finish any of the Ardennes Classics, pulling out of the Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and finally, La Doyenne, a race that he has said he dreams of winning.
Mauduit blamed respiratory issues caused by allergies for his poor showing in the Ardennes.
“Three days before the end of Pays Basque, David got sinusitis and was fighting a little bit,” the Frenchman told Rouleur. “We treated it and a few days later, he didn't have any symptoms, but when we got to the Ardennes, he was in real trouble with his allergies.
“So it was difficult for him to perform. Now, he's resting and won't touch the bike. So he's going to rebuild, with an altitude camp in May and then he will start racing again at the Critérium du Dauphiné.”
Mauduit acknowledged too that Pinot is now likely to start his tenth Tour de France on July 1. “Everything is still open for Thibaut at the Tour. He's doing Romandie and will be at the Giro, so we won't make any decision until after the Giro in June.”
So what of Démare, now 31, and so keen, according to Gaudu, to make it into the Groupama FDJ Tour team that he put himself through an early season high altitude training camp? So far this year, so anonymous: Démare has not won a race in 2023.
It's a stark contrast to where Démare's form was, only 12 months ago, as he started the 2022 Giro. Three stage wins and the points classification in last year's Corsa Rosa, made him one of the most successful French riders currently active in the WorldTour peloton.
That success continued through the summer with a stage win and the points jersey in the Tour of Poland, plus a jubilant win in Paris-Tours as the season ended.
He has already won two stages in the Tour, but the last was in 2018 and he would now appear to be slipping into the second tier of sprinters. Part of his low-key start to 2023 may have been due to family distractions, as he became a father to daughter Margaux on April 9.
That may have partially explained his absence from the Classics, but his team also admitted that his current form was “diminished”.
The team have been unable to explain Démare's sudden drop in form (James Startt)
Explaining Démare's omission from the selections for early April's cobbled races, Madiot was typically direct.
“Arnaud isn't in form, he's not at his usual level so we are trying to establish why and how this has happened,” Madiot said. “He had Covid, but since then it's been mixed. He wasn't ready for Roubaix. He wanted to go but it would have been pointless.”
His haul of ten stage wins in Grand Tours had also made him the most successful French rider currently competing. It's often forgotten that Démare has won even more stages in the Giro than Bernard Hinault, the five times Tour de France winner.
Yet in a team expected to be structured around climbers and on a mountainous course supposedly ideally suited to Gaudu, Démare's chances of making this year's Groupama-FDJ Tour team look increasingly slim.
For all their talents, the team retains an impression of fragility, with both Gaudu and Pinot lacking the resilience required to achieve contender status in the 2023 Tour. Yes, Gaudu was fourth in the 2022 race, but he was also 14 minutes adrift of overall winner Jonas Vingegaard and six minutes away from the podium too.
A week rivalling Pogačar in Paris-Nice is not the same as three weeks jousting with the Slovenian in July, something which Madiot and Mauduit are all too aware of. And that's why, barring the unexpected, we should expect Pinot to line-up with Gaudu in Bilbao for the Grand Départ of this year's Tour de France.
Cover image by SWPix