Alaphilippe zeroes in on monumental success
No one could be closer to a major monument win than Julian Alaphilippe. Following his emotional victory Saturday in his Strade Bianche debut, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s budding superstar carries unbridled ambition into the spring classics.
Alaphilippe, 26, now wants nothing more than a monument win to add to his growing palmares. He’s been close to that top step on the podium — painfully close as with the photo finish in Milano-Sanremo 2017. He has finished on three podiums in only eight starts in races considered monuments (Milano-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia).
After winning Strade Bianche, Flèche Wallonne, and Clásica San Sebastián on the trot, the mustachioed Frenchman is dreaming big going into the meat of the classics calendar.
“I love all the monuments — San Remo, Liège, Lombardia — I dream to win them all one day,” he said. “And why not even Flanders? I think I could one day.”
Despite going well in all three of the monuments he named — those that suit him — that “big one” remains elusive. He was second in his first attempt at Liège in 2015 behind Alejandro Valverde, announcing his arrival to the peloton. He was fourth behind teammate Jungels last year in Liège.
Another victory escaped his grasp in the 2017 Il Lombardia where he was second behind Vincenzo Nibali. And in even more dramatic fashion, he was part of the “Sanremo three” in the breathtaking 2017 finale that culminated in a three-up sprint between today’s newest stars. That day, Michal Kwiatkowski edged out Peter Sagan and Alaphilippe with the best bike stab since Oscar Frèire pipped a celebrating Erik Zabel in 2004.
Alaphilippe’s ambitions are clearly evolving. Last year, he barnstormed through the Tour de France, winning two stages and the king of the mountains jersey. He wants to close out unsettled business with some of his near-misses in the monuments, without limiting his scope. He explained that over the winter he reflected on what he had achieved so far in his career, and doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed.
“I don’t want my career to be summed up by the Ardennes and Tour. I needed new challenges,” he said of Strade Bianche. “Everyone always told me, ‘Oh, you should race there, you would love it!’ I had a lot of pressure as the favorite, but I managed it well.”
With its impressive opening to the 2019 season, Deceuninck-Quick-Step is picking up where it left off last year. It has already won 15 races, including a clean sweep of the European one-day classics so far.
Last year in its first season without Tom Boonen, an unshackled Quick-Step shredded the classics. The team was the dominant force across both the cobblestone and hilly classics, coming home with Tour of Flanders and Liège-Bastogne-Liège wins, not to mention an impressive harvest among the other one-day spring classics across Belgium and France.
So far this year, the team is even more dominant, going four-for-four in the major one-days to date. It swept the “opening weekend,” with Zdenek Stybar taking an emotional and overdue win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and backed it up with Bob Jungels surprising the sprinters at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. French rider and loyal teammate Florian Sénéchal took his first pro win at the mid-week classic Le Samyn on Tuesday, only to see Alaphilippe barnstorm to victory at Strade Bianche on Saturday.
“We always have the pressure,” he said. “Everyone looks to [us] because we win a lot. The responsibility is on us, so we took the responsibility again.”
His team’s strength in numbers played in its favor yet again in Italy. On Saturday, Alaphilippe had 2015 Strade winner Stybar and Yves Lampaert with him going into the decisive part of the race. A wiser Alaphilippe is also racing more intelligently and revealed a tactical touch in the Strade Bianche finale.
“When Fuglsang and then van Aert went, I quickly followed. The others couldn’t respond, and I knew that was the move,” he said. “After doing recon, I knew my best chance was in the finale. I told Fuglsang not to attack or I would not collaborate. He was very strong, and I had to race more with my head than my legs.”
Alaphilippe starts Tirreno-Adriatico on Wednesday as the pre-race favorite. He is quickly growing accustomed to this status. Strade Bianche confirmed that a more mature and ever ambitious Alaphilippe could be hard to rein in this spring.
“This was my first big goal of the season,” Alaphilippe said. “I was lucky. I didn’t have a puncture or crash. My teammates were impeccable and I played off my rivals. To win here is incredible.”
Alaphilippe’s bike-handling skills and pre- and post-race antics are giving Sagan a run for his money as the peloton’s crown prince. A major “monument” win this spring would cement his place among today’s elite.