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It promises to be one of the biggest battles of the Tour de France’s final days. After accelerating in the final meters to Peyragudes on stage 17 Wednesday, David Gaudu put five seconds into rival Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic).
The Frenchman is fifth overall, 7:57 down on Vingegaard, with Quintana just four seconds ahead.
“He didn’t give me a turn on the climb. He decided to attack me, I told myself I would drop him on the last ramp,” he told journalists at the finish.
“I saw that he had gone from too far out. I said ‘well buddy boy, I’m going to hunt you down and leave you behind.’ He didn’t want to ride with me, so fair’s fair.”
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It could all have been very different. Gaudu was suffering on the day’s second climb, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, and dropped before his rival, Quintana, on the penultimate ascent, the Col de Val Louron-Azet. Groupama-FDJ teammate Valentin Madouas helped to pace him there and in all but the stage’s final kilometers.
Coming back from the breakaway, Thibaut Pinot also helped on the Val de Louron. 25-year-old Gaudu has rarely been without teammates when the going gets tough, being helped on several stages to ride at his own pace and finish strongly.
“When I saw how they went at the foot of Peyragudes, I thought that if they go like that to the top, it’ll be every man for himself, the Granon [stage 11] all over again,” Gaudu said. “In the end, that’s kind of what happened. We didn’t catch Bardet and Thomas but we managed the day quite well.”
Gaudu had been telling himself on the climb to Peyragudes to not get dropped: “It’s mental now, it’s in the head. I filled my mind with good emotions to try to hang on because the legs were hurting. I was going all out the whole time,” he said.
The work of his Groupama-FDJ squad keeps him going mentally too. “Top five at the Tour, it’s already huge. The whole team has had faith in me since the start. Every one has sacrificed themselves for me one day or another, I want to hang on for them.”
He reserved a special word for Valentin Madouas, himself at 13th overall, who “saved his ass every time,” riding on the Col de Val Louron with Thibaut Pinot, leading in the valley and setting the pace yet again for most of the climb to Peyragudes. “Just for that, I had no right to let my head drop.”
One more tough mountain stage between Lourdes and Hautacam awaits before the important time trial.
“Everyone is at their wit’s end. I’ll have to be very strong mentally,” he said.
There’s a little added spice to his fight with Quintana for fourth, given that they both ride for French teams.
There has still been no French stage win in this year’s race, but if Gaudu finishes fourth, it would be the country’s best Tour performance since Romain Bardet’s third place in 2017.