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Julian Alaphilippe downplays expectations in Tour of Flanders debut

Julian Alaphilippe leads Deceuninck–Quick-Step's powerhouse squad at Sunday's Tour of Flanders.

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Julian Alaphilippe is downplaying his chances at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders in what will be his debut in the Belgian monument.

The world champion is riding high into a Ronde van Vlaanderen that will see Deceuninck-Quick-Step riding on pride in what will be the last major one-day race of the truncated 2020 calendar.

“I am motivated for this, impatient even,” Alaphilippe said Sunday’s big match. “It is my last race of the season and I want to end this special year on a good note. Above all, it remains a journey of discovery. I have no experience here. I expect a difficult course. The goal is to win … with the team. And that can be anyone.”

With his puncheurs build, this is Alaphippe’s first taste of the cobblestone classics. After botching the finale at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he was pipped at the line and then relegated out of a group of five, the swashbuckling Frenchman got it right — barely — at Brabantse Pijl for the win.

Surrounded by a deep and experienced squad that also includes Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar, Tim Declerq and Kasper Asgreen, all potential winners, Alaphilippe insists the team’s tactic is simple — win the race, and it doesn’t matter with who.

“I am delighted to be there this year. Now that the Ronde falls after the Ardennes classics, the time is perfect to get acquainted,” he said. “The ideal scenario for Sunday? Using our strength across the board, assure we are not pushed on the defensive, anticipate when necessary, and enter the final with as many teammates as possible. Then it it will be the legs that speak.”

The team will be racing Sunday with a new-look jersey that includes sponsor “Elegant” in place of Deceuninck, but the team’s tactic remains true to its legacy.

Team boss Patrick Lefevere downplayed Alaphilippe’s chances, but was quick to add the team has every intention of winning Belgium’s most important race.

“I’m not unrealistic about Julian. It’s his first race here, but we brought in Dries [Devenyns] to help guide Julian through the race,” Lefevere said. “We are known for our loyalty within the team. We can win with different riders, so let’s just hope we’re in that situation. Whether it’s Julian, or one of the other six, it doesn’t matter.”

With so much depth, the team has an advantage over many of its rivals that in most cases have only one leader. Lampaert, always a contender for victory, said it’s up to Quick-Step to drive a hard pace to make a selection, and try to isolate such pre-race favorites as Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Matthieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix). Much was made of the clash between the two former cyclocross world champions at Gent-Wevelgem, with Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) playing off their rivalry to take the victory.

“Alaphilippe is fast, and that gives us more options,” Lampaert said. “Julian has to stay close to van Aert and van der Poel, and it’s up to us to make the race hard. We have the strength and depth, and we need to use that our advantage, and try to isolate van Aert and van der Poel. They are the only leaders on their teams, and we can play more tactical cards. Anyway, waiting for the race is not our style.”

With Paris-Roubaix canceled due to worsening coronavirus conditions across France, Sunday’s race is the last big date on the season for the classics riders.

“I’m not an ideal rider for Flanders, but I like hard races,” Alaphilippe said. “If you are physically and mentally strong, you can go a long way. This is a big race for our team, even more so with Roubaix being canceled. We’ll do everything to win.”