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France still waiting for Alaphilippe’s big breakthrough

If it’s been a painfully long wait for the next French Tour de France winner, then you also have to go back, way back, to 1997 for the last French success in Paris-Nice, when Laurent Jalabert took the last of three consecutive wins.

As the “Race to the Sun” climbed into the chilly hills of southern France to the Cote d’Azur, Quick-Step Floor’s Julian Alaphilippe was being tipped for glory, especially after race favorite Wout Poels (Sky) exited the race on Friday, crashing out on a fast descent and breaking his collarbone.

That drama blew the race wide open and in Saturday’s summit finish to Valdeblore La Colmiane, ridden in freezing rain and low temperatures, Astana, Bahrain-Merida, Mitchelton-Scott and Movistar picked up the initiative as the stage reached its climax.

Then, when overnight leader Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) finally cracked six kilometers from the ski station finish, that gave Alaphilippe his cue. For two brief kilometers as Sanchez appeared glued to the road, the Frenchman, who’d started the stage just 22 seconds off the race lead, was in the yellow jersey.

But then, not for the first time, up popped a foreigner — Simon Yates of Mitchelton Scott on this occasion — to kill the French dream. As Yates accelerated clear to take the stage win and race lead, Alaphilippe reached his limit, cracking apart in the final three kilometers to slip down the standings to ninth overall.

“It’s disappointing, but at least we had the yellow jersey for 2.5 kilometers,” smiled Alaphilippe’s director Brian Holm afterward.

“If the climb had been four kilometers shorter maybe it would have been different,” Holm said, “but we sort of knew that Julian is not a pure climber for a finish like that and that there was a chance he could blow up. But he fought hard. That’s his job.”

In 2017, Alaphilippe had also let the French dream, but again the big climbs of Paris-Nice overshadowed him. He ceded the overall lead when he cracked under pressure from Alberto Contador.

“Last year he was struggling too, but it was Contador remember, and we were also working for Dan Martin,” Holm said.

“He’s getting a little bit better each year. So we will see, but it was a tough climb today and with the cold, it really wasn’t brilliant for him. It’s good for guys like Wellens, but not for Julian.”

Earlier this week, the speed of Alaphilippe’s progression was taken to task a little by his Quick-Step Floors team boss Patrick Lefevere, who believes that his French leader is still not the finished article.

“Sometimes he wastes energy, even in the evening at the hotel when his teammates are resting in their room,” Lefevere said. “Maybe it’s not so serious on a week-long stage race. I know it’s a bit old school, but you can’t do that on a Grand Tour.”

Holm, however, calls Alaphilippe “a rider of the future. He’s not the kind of rider who will be gone in two years and you’ll say, ‘What happened to him? What happened to ‘Lulu’?”

With Paris-Nice slipping away, Alaphilippe’s thinking will now turn towards the fast approaching Milan-Sanremo, when his ‘puncheur’ attacking style may prove well suited to the shorter climbs of the Cipressa and Poggio.

“He has the potential to win a big Classic,” Holm said. “I’m sure one day he can win Paris-Nice, or maybe Tirreno-Adriatico, which might suit him better as some of the climbs are a bit steeper and the weather is a bit better. But I won’t be surprised to see him up there for Sanremo.”

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