In a weekend that saw young winners making their stand, one rider who didn’t win also made a very big impression. Etixx – Quick-Step’s Petr Vakoc, 23, swept a pair of races in France, and Trek – Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven, also 23, upset the sprinters at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne — confirming a new generation is elbowing its way into the peloton.
Equally impressive was Ag2r La Mondiale rider Alexis Gougeard, whose fifth-place result at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad signaled him as another rising star to watch in the upcoming spring classics season. It wasn’t so much his overall result, but how he did it that was impressive. The 22-year-old rode in the day’s main breakaway of 12 riders, and then hung on as the heavy hitters bridged across. Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing sprinted to victory, but Gougeard was able to hang with the fast men and snag fifth.
“I found myself in the break, but we decided not to put everything into the move and wait for the big finale,” Gougeard said Saturday. “In the end, I had some heavy legs. I think I have improved compared to last year. I feel stronger, better on the cobblestones.”
It’s that style of aggressive racing and sense of tactical acumen beyond his years that has many calling Gougeard one of the best young French riders. He has all the makings of becoming France’s next great “baroudeur.”
Now in his third season with Ag2r, Gougeard isn’t afraid to take chances in big races. He already boasts seven wins on his palmares, including a stage win in his grand tour debut at the 2015 Vuelta a España as well as a stage and the overall at the Tour de l’Eurométropole, a five-day stage race in Belgium and France last October.
“He’s a big talent,” Ag2r manager Vincent Lavenu said during last year’s Vuelta. “He has a big engine, and isn’t afraid of anything. Most riders of his age would blow up, but he can ride like a much older racer. He has big potential.”
So far, Gougeard has been impressive in breakaways and aggressive racing, but he has a complete skillset and some are comparing him to Sylvain Chavanel or even Laurent Jalabert. A strong time trialist as well as a rouleur, perhaps his only weak spot is his ability in the high mountains.
Gougeard raised eyebrows last year in the spring classics when he rode into the early breakaway at Paris-Roubaix, and then hung on to finish 26th. That was a tactic he repeated Saturday at Omloop HNB.
Fearless and aggressive, those traits served Gougeard well at the Vuelta last year. He rode into a handful of breakaways and one finally stuck on a lumpy stage into Ávila, when he surprised his breakaway companion with a long-distance attack with 30km to go. France hasn’t seen this kind of panache since the days of Bernard Hinault, known as “the Badger.”
“It’s a big satisfaction to win a stage,” Gougeard said last year at the Vuelta. “I haven’t raced many WorldTour races this season, and I came here with the goal of trying to win a stage. I want to become a rider who can win one-day classics and be aggressive in the grand tours. I am not going to change.”
Gougeard grew up near Rouen in northern France, and he was second in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix junior race (in which he was beaten by compatriot Florian Sénénchal, another promising French cobble-basher). Gougeard won the opening prologue at the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir and finished third in a mountain stage to Morzine behind the Yates brothers.
At 5-foot-8 and 167 pounds, Gougeard has the build to handle the cobbles as well as get over some lumpy terrain. Though he admits he may never have the climbing chops to win the Tour de France, stage racing is not off his radar.
“I love Paris-Roubaix, it’s the race I have in my head,” he told Paris-Normandie. “I hope to become a classics rider, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t win a race like Paris-Nice or the [Critérium du] Dauphiné.”
Nicknamed “Gou-Gou,” Gougeard lists his favorite movie as Django, likes house and electronic music, and said if he wasn’t a bike racer, he’d want to be a bartender. It’s that mix of attitude, fearlessness, and talent that has many in France looking forward to the northern classics with quiet optimism.
Up next for Gougeard is Paris-Nice and a full northern classics schedule. Looking further out, he’s on the long list to make Ag2r’s Tour de France squad.