Julian Alaphilippe was never supposed to be the saviour of French stage racing. He is destined to wear Rainbow stripes, dominate the Mur, and stack up an enviable Monument record, perhaps even completing an unprecedented full set. It was last year that we realised just how good he was at riding uphill fast and outfoxing strong breakaway companions. He was a worthy KoTM winner who went the extra mile (sometimes literally) to ensure he couldn’t be accused of manipulating a questionable points system. The victories kept coming and the boundaries that confined Alaphilippe’s obvious potential continued to grow. Strade Bianche? Yep. Sanremo? Yep. Tour of Britain? Sure!
However, fourteen days in the yellow jersey and a full twenty-four hours as the bookmaker’s favourite (priced at 2.0 decimal, a perceived 50% chance of success) were not part of the Alaphilippe plan. The likes of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot had never been this close to delivering a much sought after home victory. Both had been tasked with the near-impossible mission of toppling Chris Froome, but also crippled by their own shortcomings. Bardet had twice threatened to do something special, but the cycling world lived in hope rather than genuine belief. They wanted a miracle to happen, but it never looked likely. Alaphilippe, however, captivated the cycling fanbase by successfully completing the crossing from brave soldier to very realistic winner, if only for a moment.
To understand why Alaphilippe caused such excitement, we must first acknowledge that the 2019 Tour was not a remake of the Tommy Voeckler tale from 2011. Voeckler built his raid on the yellow jersey on his enormous heart. He was a capable climber and in great shape, but his defence of the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees was nothing more than a very pleasant surprise. He never once looked the equal of Alberto Contador, Frank and Andy Schleck, and Cadel Evans. He had grabbed the jersey after a large breakaway and was asking his legs for a miracle.
Alaphilippe wrote a completely different story. Whilst Voeckler had arrived at the 2011 Tour in smart form (winner of the Four days of Dunkirk and two stages of Paris-Nice), Alaphilippe arrived a certified superstar. He was a two-time La Fleche winner, Sanremo champion and conqueror of the Piazza del Campo. He was a marked man and the star of one of the World Tour’s biggest outfits. He was expected to have his pick of stages in the first ten days.
There was a sense of inevitability to Alaphilippe’s 26-second stage win on the third day of the race and his first yellow jersey was a fine fit. He wore it with the same confidence as other top talent such as Fabian Cancellara, Greg van Avermaet and Peter Sagan. Like these great names, Alaphilippe’s spell in yellow was supposed to be short and sweet. Even accounting for his punchy climbing style, he was expected to lose the jersey when the road went upward.
The first challenge was the Vosges’ Planche des Belles Filles but Alaphilippe would, in fact, gain time on sluggish contenders including eventual podium finishers Egan Bernal and Steven Kruijswijk. It looked as though Alaphilippe was merely chasing down stage runner-up Giuolo Ciccone who would borrow the leader’s jersey for two days but – in hindsight – it was a flash of the ability he possessed on even the most testing climbs.
The Pau time trial was another huge turning point and, for many, the final kilometres of Alaphilippe’s stunning 46.6km/h effort will be the lasting memory of the 106th Tour. The 27-year old is a strong time-triallist, especially when riding for GC honours, but was not expected to take the day’s prize. Thomas de Gendt had led for most of the day and his impressive time survived the efforts of several charging contenders. Eventually Geraint Thomas took the lead with a time that was a whopping twenty-two seconds ahead of an otherwise condensed pack. The final man on course bested the former Olympic pursuit champion by an astonishing fourteen seconds.
The day’s finale was seen by many as one of the greatest days in French cycling. However, for others, memories were stirred of Alexander Vinokourov’s time-trial dominantion in Albi in 2007. The Kazakh rider was found guilty of doping four days after. The size of Alaphilippe’s advantage over more familiar names was jaw-dropping and provided more than enough ‘evidence’ to sentence him to a doping ban in the eyes of the most cynical followers.
Nevertheless, we had never seen Alaphilippe in this position so comparing with his efforts in previous Tour trials is almost meaningless. He’s supremely talented and had a full set of splits to ride with on a course which was well-suited. His collapse the following week further debunks any wrongdoing. Even in a sport so tarnished as pro cycling, there’s no point crying foul play every time there’s a surprise winner.
The finish to the Tourmalet stage was perhaps even more surprising. The long, misty ascent was not the sort of backdrop we were used to seeing Alaphilippe reign supreme. There was plenty of evidence to suggest he should struggle; the climb was long and his ability to perform at altitude was to be put under the microscope. However, after several tense kilometres, Alaphilippe answered doubters by dancing away from a group containing Kruijswijk, Bernal, Emmanuel Buchmann and Mikel Landa. Thomas was thirty seconds back at the finish line. That night the Frenchman was made favourite.
Julian’s Tour de France party snowballed during the second rest day, but the Alps promised to be his biggest test yet. The Col d’Izoard was tackled at a steady tempo and Alaphilippe was comfortable behind a handful of underwhelming pacesetters. The monstrous Galibier finally broke his resolve and he lost the wheel of the leading group before crawling to the summit. To the shock of rivals, a twenty second deficit was wiped out in an instant on the descent. It was another day survived. And in style.
With two days to go the wheels came off and by the time we reached Val Thrones Alaphilippe was four minutes behind Bernal; our brilliant and persistent race winner. In a somewhat confusing end to the Tour, a heartbroken Alaphilippe had seen both his lead and podium hopes dissolve. He was down to fifth in Paris and had a lot to reflect on.
This could be the closest he gets to tasting Tour success. Alaphilippe does not currently have the toolkit to arrive at the Tour next year and challenge for victory. Signing for a GC orientated squad – such as Ineos – would likely provide the necessary package of support to transition to a Tour de France winner. But is this really the right path?
Alaphilippe is on the brink of victories at Liege and – if you believe his latest interviews – Flanders. That would give him three different Monuments before the age of thirty. Il Lombardia seems another race ripe for Alaphilippe, as and when he chooses to make it a target. That only leaves Paris-Roubaix which could provide a romantic final chapter. Despite the difficulty of achieving this remarkable set – he would become both the first rider this century and the first rider from outside of Belgium – it still seems closer than defeating Bernal at altitude next July.
It’s vital that Alaphilippe continues to concentrate on what he can control. With every painful pedal stroke in the Alps, Alaphilippe looked more and more like a Classics specialist. He had obviously not trained for such a circumstance, but he is well on his way to a very different greatness. Both Yorkshire (2019) and Rhone (2020) could be World Championship winning locations for a rider as multi-talented as Alaphilippe. France haven’t had a male World Champion since 1997, and just one appearance on the podium since 2005. There’s no doubt this will change soon.
Alaphilippe will also challenge at races such as Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico courtesy of their location near the Classics season and blend of rolling parcours. He is more than capable of besting Grand Tour contenders over one week’s racing but can’t allow himself to get excited by the scalps he collects and the lofty expectations thrown in his direction.
Finally, Alaphilippe should remind himself of his own age. It’s possible his peak will last for the next five years and he could decide to make a switch to Grand Tour racing in his early thirties. He has enough time to answer his calling as a springtime sensation before considering a future as master of the Alps. Alejandro Valverde, whom Alaphilippe shares a similar skillset, just finished ninth at the Tour at the age of 38. The longevity of our polarizing World Champion has raised suspicion, but he remains a shining example of how long a pro cyclist has to add to their palmares. A run at Sagan’s green jersey could be a very interesting addition. His list of possible goals is the most vast in the sport.
A wide range of talents plus an enormous heart and a spoonful of recklessness took Alaphilippe to a wonderful fifth place but he can’t expect to challenge again without a serious reinvention. We must remember that he was an imposter in this year’s Tour top ten. A brilliant, inspiring imposter.