Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar were long since in a race of their own, but theirs was not the only duel up for decision as the Tour de France faced its final day in the mountains on stage 18. Further down the standings, other head-to-head contests were reaching their denouement on the road to Hautacam.
David Gaudu set out from Lourdes knowing that only a miracle could put him onto the podium, his Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot’s ambition at the start of the year, but he began the stage just four seconds off Nairo Quintana’s fourth place.
“My battle wasn’t with Vingegaard, Pogačar or [Geraint] Thomas. My battle was with Nairo Quintana and the others,” said Gaudu of his race within a race over the Col d’Aubisque, Col de Spandelles and up to Hautacam.
In keeping with his Tour to this point, Gaudu cut his cloth carefully on the final day in the Pyrenees, managing his effort smartly to place fifth on the stage, 2:58 behind a rampant Vingegaard, but more than two minutes ahead of the flagging Arkéa-Samsic rider. Three days from Paris, Gaudu lies fourth overall, 11:05 off Vingegaard’s unassailable yellow jersey.
“David knows how to manage himself. He doesn’t go into the red and then blow up,” Madiot said admiringly. “He did what he needed to do.”
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Gaudu was unable to live with Pogačar’s onslaught on the Spandelles, but he knew there was little point in even trying. That was Vingegaard’s battle. Gaudu’s focus was instead on dislodging Quintana, who had begun to betray signs of suffering on the day’s penultimate climb.
Pogacar and Vingegaard’s bout, interrupted by the Slovenian’s crash on the descent of the Spandelles, drew the eye as the yellow jersey group reformed at the foot of Hautacam, but Gaudu versus Quintana made for an attractive undercard all the same.
When the yellow jersey group broke up all over again on the final climb, Gaudu fared better than most in limiting the damage. Aided by his teammate Valentin Madouas, he succeeded in gradually eking out a hefty lead over Quintana.
Gaudu had more support on the upper slopes of the climb. Thibaut Pinot had spent the day in the break in search of France’s first stage win of this race, but he was dropped by a startling acceleration from Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) a third of the way up Hautacam. He parked that disappointment quickly to put in a turn on Gaudu’s behalf. Approaching the summit, Gaudu had Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) in his sights, and he crossed the line just four seconds behind the Welshman.
“The hardest part was dropping Nairo, but I was with a great Valentin Madouas once again, and then a great Thibaut Pinot,” Gaudu said. “I would have signed for fourth place overall at the beginning of the Tour. Some people are picky, but you don’t realise how much effort it takes to finish fourth in the Tour. I am proud of this place. I’m told it’s the best result for a French rider since 2017 and the level is increasing all the time.”
For Pinot, the final day in the Pyrenees also represented his last chance to leave a mark on a Tour where he has struggled to find his form after being stricken with COVID-19 ahead of the race. He was among the strongmen of the early break over the Aubisque and Spandelles, and he found himself with only Van Aert and Daniel Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers) for company at the foot of Hautacam.
“They told me the gap was 2:30 and once they said that, I knew they were coming back too quickly, so I knew my role would be to wait for David after. My hope of winning the stage lasted two kilometres, but that wasn’t the important thing today,” said Pinot, who attempted to drop his breakaway companions on the lower slopes. Instead, Van Aert, winner of two bunch sprints on this Tour, summoned up the strength to distance Pinot on his favoured terrain.
“When I saw [Van Aert] forcing the pace on the penultimate climb, I understood he was on a very, very, very good day,” said Pinot. “I was already happy just to be still with him at the top there.”
Pinot’s endeavours would carry him to tenth on the stage and move him up to fifteenth overall, even if he had aspired to altogether more on this Tour when he soloed to victory on the penultimate stage of the Tour de Suisse just over a month ago.
“Catching COVID-19 after that penalised him,” his brother and coach Julien Pinot told L’Équipe. “At the start, we thought it would pass. In the end, he was left at 92-93% of his maximal potential. That didn’t prevent him from making some good efforts, but he wasn’t capable of repeating them at high intensity.”