BRIOUDE, France (VN) — The throngs of French fans lining the 170 kilometers between Saint-Étienne and Brioude for Sunday’s ninth stage of the Tour de France had an extra occasion to celebrate on this Bastille Day. Their countryman, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) rode within the bunch, resplendent in his yellow race leader’s jersey.
Television cameras focused in on Alaphilippe throughout the French holiday; they showed fans holding paper signs emblazoned with Alaphilippe’s nickname, ‘Juju.’ In recent years the French have rallied their support behind Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic), among others. This year, however, there is no contest. No rider makes French fans proudly chant Allez Les Blues quite like Alaphilippe.
And there was no coincidence as to why the 27-year-old was in yellow. Alaphilippe’s dramatic attack in the closing kilometer’s of Saturday’s hilly stage to Saint-Étienne snagged the yellow jersey back from Italian rider Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo). The ability to wear yellow on France’s national holiday was unquestionably the motivation.
“My teammates did a great job and I was able to enjoy my jersey today, July 14,” Alaphilippe said.
“I’m really happy to have spent Bastille Day in yellow. In addition, physically I am at the top of my form. I have never felt so strong on the bike.”
His strength is something that the French can be proud about because it seems to improve as time goes by like a Bordeaux wine.
Thus far, Alaphilippe has been the breakout star of 2019. In the spring he won Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, and La Flèche Wallonne. In the Tour, he now counts one stage win solo and five days in the famous yellow jersey. Most insiders believe he can keep it for four more stages, until the close of the stage 13 time trial in Pau.
And throughout the tour he has raced with an aggressive, attacking style that has only won more fans over to his corner. Every morning throngs of French media surround the Deceuninck-Quick Step bus, hoping to glimpse the French superstar.
“The craze around me is incredible,” said Alaphilippe.
“I had a few friends and family members on the road today. I still heard my name all day long. I want to say thanks so much for this joy – merci!”
Tomorrow the race covers 217.5 kilometres to Albi and most predict a sprint finish, which means Alaphilippe should carry the yellow jersey into the rest day.
Then the second week and the run to the time trial in Pau. After that, if he still has the yellow jersey, Team Ineos and the big guns will put the pressure on him.
Still, French fans, cycling journalists, and even pro riders have all pondered the big question surrounding Alaphilippe throughout this Tour. Could he ever be a bonafide rider for the general classification? Could Julian Alaphilippe someday win his country’s biggest race?
“Alaphilippe is not the biggest threat in terms of GC,” said Michal Kwiatkowski (Ineos), “but you never really know.”
The biggest stage race win on Alaphilippe’s list of palmares was the Amgen Tour of California, which he won in 2016. He also won the Tour of the Basque Country in 2018. Many do not consider him a threat for the final overall in Paris this year.
For his part, Alaphilippe has also downplayed his chances at winning this year’s Tour.
“I’ve already done a good first part of the Tour, but you can’t compare wearing the yellow jersey after a week and bringing it to Paris,” Alaphilippe added.
“It’s clear that the hardest is still to come. I’ve already [examined] the route and I know what’s coming up with stages in the mountains at very high altitude. The second part of the Tour is very difficult.”
Still, never say never when it comes to Alaphilippe. While he may not win this year’s Tour de France, there’s always a chance that, someday, he could come back to this race with greater ambitions.
“My general classification ambitions were non-existent before the Tour and the maillot jaune hasn’t changed a lot in that regard,” he said. “I’m just going to try to keep the jersey as long as I can and test my limits.”