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Only four seconds separated him and the rider in that position, experienced Colombian Nairo Quintana, before stage 18.
For a while on the road to Hautacam, they were inseparable. Both were dropped by an acceleration by Tadej Pogačar on the Col de Spandelles – despite the Arkéa Samsic man using a helping hand from a TV motorbike, for which he received a fine and time penalty.
They rode together in the last kilometers of the climb and were caught by a larger group containing Alexandr Vlasov in the valley before Hautacam.
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“My fight today wasn’t with Pogačar, Vingegaard or Thomas. It was Nairo and the others,” Gaudu said at the finish. “The hardest thing was dropping Nairo and I just had to give everything. You have days where things go very well, and today was like that.”
With eleven kilometers to go, he attacked Quintana with the help of teammate Valentin Madouas, dropping back from the breakaway. Riding strongly, the Groupama-FDJ grimpeur went on to catch the Ineos Grenadiers pairing of Geraint Thomas and Dani Martínez.
Thomas dropped him in the last meters before the finish at Hautacam, but Gaudu’s fifth place stage finish at 2:58 to Vingegaard was his best showing in the mountains, equaling his result on the Col du Granon.
It has gone a long way to securing fourth place at the Tour, as Quintana finished over two and a half minutes down on him. Three stages remain, with a 41km time trial on stage 20. Neither Gaudu nor Quintana are specialists in the discipline.
“Frankly, I don’t know where I could have gained more time,” Gaudu reflected on his overall race. “Possibly a minute on the pavé if Van Aert hadn’t done that ride in the finale. But I’d still need to take three on Geraint Thomas. Ultimately, I think the three in front of me are the strongest in the race.”
It would be Gaudu’s first Grand Tour top five finish; his best previous result was eighth and two stage wins at the 2020 Vuelta a España.
“I think I’d have taken fourth place at the start of the Tour,” Gaudu said, smiling. “Some people say fourth, fifth or sixth here doesn’t mean so much, but I think they don’t realize the effort, the intensity and the high level that you must have.”
If he stays in that position, it would also be France’s best result since Romain Bardet finished third at the 2017 race. “The overall level has grown, so has the French one, but there are emerging cycling nations coming up like Ghirmay’s Eritrea, Slovenia or Slovakia,” he said.
“It’s not just the French anymore like it was in the fifties or sixties. There are fewer French riders and it’s harder to win.”
Despite his satisfaction at his performance, the talented Breton climber is not getting complacent. “I’m proud to currently be fourth. There’s still tomorrow and the time trial. Two more days to stay focused because anything can still happen,” he said.