French neo-pro David Gaudu may be slight in stature, but he is already playing hardball with some of the biggest names in cycling. The 2016 winner of the prestigious Tour de l’Avenir, the world’s top under-23 stage race, Gaudu, 21, made a seemless transition into the pro ranks this year, scoring impressive results in several WorldTour races.

Words/images: James Startt, European Associate to Peloton

PELOTON Magazine: David, you won the 2016 Tour de l’Avenir and turned professional a year ago with the FDJ team where you’ve had some decent results. But turning pro always represents a big jump. How was it for you when you look back on your rookie year?

David Gaudu: Well, I’d have to say it went really well. Like you said, it is a big jump into the pro ranks, but physically I felt I made that step pretty easily really. Already in the springtime I had good results at the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and the Flèche Wallonne, and I won a stage at the Tour de l’Ain in August and had a strong end of season. The only down moment came during the Critèrium du Dauphiné when I fell ill and had to drop out.

PELOTON: Yes, you had great ride in Catalunya, going head-to-head with the likes of Chris Froome and Alejandro Valverde. I think it was on stage 4, a hilly stage, where you made the final break with them. What was that like? I mean, heck, you had only been professional for a couple of months at best!

Gaudu: Yeah, wow, that was really something and it is definitely not a moment I will forget soon. At first I was just focused on the race. Marc Soler attacked on the last climb, about 10 kilometers from the finish, and I felt good so I just went with him. At first I sensed that there was no one behind us, so I wanted to do my best and hopefully get a good result. After the summit, we had a technical descent and I followed Soler’s line. During the descent I sensed that someone else had bridged up to us, but I didn’t know who. It was only after the descent, when we hit this long straightaway, that I looked around to see who was there. And first I just saw Valverde, but I couldn’t see who was behind him. It was only when I looked around again that I realized who else was there. And I was like, “Oh fuck, there is Froome too!” Suddenly, I realized I was there with the big guns.

But that night when I was back in the hotel and saw the images on TV, that’s when it really hit. I was just like, “Wow! Is that really me there?” It was crazy! And I was getting all of these messages from people, so I knew that I had really accomplished something.

PELOTON: And you continued to get good results with a top-10 finish at Flèche Wallonne. You even attacked Valverde, the eventual winner, on the final climb up the incredibly steep Mur de Huy.

Gaudu: Yeah, it’s funny, because I didn’t really feel good much of the day. It was a really hard race with lots of crosswinds and all. It was only on the Mur where I felt decent. The last time up, I just focused on myself and how I felt physically. I didn’t think about the fans or the other cyclists. It was just like I was doing an all-out uphill effort. I saw the signs “500 meters, 400 meters, 300 meters” and finally, with 250 meters remaining, I just thought: “Hey, nobody knows me. Now is the time to take my chance.” It didn’t last very long and Valverde was on my wheel quickly, but I felt good.

PELOTON: Timing is everything on the Mur de Huy. In retrospect did you attack too early? With experience, would you have waited a little longer?

Gaudu: Yeah, perhaps, and maybe I would have finished in the top five. But maybe not. Maybe I would have just finished ninth following wheels. And in that case I wouldn’t have had the same feeling. I mean, it was really satisfying just knowing I had the legs to attack in the final of a race like Flèche.

Gaudu leading the Tour de l’Avenir in 2016. Within months, he would find himself at the front of some of the world’s biggest professional races as well.

PELOTON: You had to wait a few months for your first victory. But it came in August at the Tour de l’Ain, when you raced away with your team leader Thibaut Pinot. You finished together, but you were the one that came across the line first….

Gaudu: Yeah, I had really targeted that race. It came at a good moment in the season. A lot of great riders have had their first pro win there, guys like Julien Alaphilippe and Thibaut. And already I had finished fifth the year before. Anyway, Thibaut was really motivated, as it was a hard stage and already in the team meeting we decided to attack on the final climb. And, well, the race turned out to be a carbon copy of the team meeting as the two of us got away alone together and even if Thibaut didn’t raise his arms in victory, I think he was happy to see me do it, since he had won here himself as a young pro. It was just a great memory.

PELOTON: Did you ride a lot with Pinot this year?

Gaudu: Well, not so much in the beginning of the season as he was focused on preparing for the Giro d’Italia, but in the second part of the season we raced quite a bit together. He’s amazing. He’s always hungry, he always wants to do something, even when he doesn’t have the legs. He’s a real warrior.

PELOTON: What did you learn the most this year?

Gaudu: Well, I’d say I gained a lot of experience in races that will come in handy next year. And in addition, I simply gained real physical strength and power.

PELOTON: What race inspires you the most?

Gaudu: Well, there are two I would say: the Tour de France, of course, but also the Tour of Lombardy. I did it this year for the first time and really loved it. And I think with some experience, it is a race that I could really do well in.

PELOTON: Looking to 2018, what races do you plan to focus on?

Gaudu: Well, we haven’t really sat down and looked at everything, but I will likely continue to focus on weeklong stage races and classics like Flèche and Lombardy. But I also plan to do my first grand tour, although I don’t know yet which one. There will be certain races where I will perhaps ride for Thibaut, but there will be others where I will have my own cards to play and be more protected.