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Julian Alaphilippe isn’t going down without a fight, but moments after bravely defending the yellow jersey Sunday, the effervescent Frenchman revealed a hint of pessimism in the face of the looming onslaught of high mountains standing between him and Paris.
After two weeks of racing with panache, Alaphilippe has raised the hopes of an entire nation that he could deliver France’s first yellow jersey in decades.
Sunday was like a glass of cold water in the face.
“I was expecting it to be hard today,” Alaphilippe said. “I am not disappointed. I am simply exhausted.”
Alaphilippe defended yellow, but ceded important seconds in what was the first day the Frenchman has shown weakness. On Sunday, he saw his lead shrink from 2:02 to 1:35 to defending champion Geraint Thomas (Ineos), with French climber Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) breathing down his neck.
Alaphilippe kept yellow, but even he seemed to admit that the worse is yet to come.
“It’s not really a surprise for me to crack after yesterday’s stage when I really drew on my reserves to stay with the best climbers,” he said. “I am burned out.”
Reality came crushing back for Alaphilippe on Sunday. After riding an emotional wave for two weeks, gravity seemed to be catching up with him on the upper reaches of the stage.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step did another stellar job bringing him to the day’s final climbs, but with Spanish climber Enric Mas suffering, Alaphilippe was soon isolated over Sunday’s two final climbs.
Unlike Sunday’s mostly steady and controlled assault on the Tourmalet, Sunday’s stage was fraught with more attacks and unpredictable movement. Eventually, Alaphilippe had to give in to the collective force of his rivals.
“It’s not anything in particular, but it’s simply two hard weeks of racing,” he said. “After everything I’ve done, everything I’ve given, I’m starting to pay for it.”
Alaphilippe has defied expectations since the Tour started and has energized a nation of cycling fans who’ve been waiting for decades for a chance to cheer for one of their own. After recapturing the yellow jersey in a daring raid last week, the Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider has bravely defended and even expanded his grip on yellow.
But as Alaphilippe all but admitted, the grueling toll of the Tour is starting to pay its inevitable price.
If things are starting to unravel ever so slightly, Monday’s second rest day will come at a good time. Alaphilippe will have at least three days to recover and keep chasing his yellow jersey dream. Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s stages are a chance for the sprinters and breakaway artists to shine, leaving three climb-heavy stages over some of the highest and most grueling Tour climbs, high in the Alps.
Just that hint of struggle on Sunday, however, will serve to motivate his rivals to pile on even more as the Tour moves into its final decisive phase.
“The real hard mountains are just beginning and today was very hard,” he said. “It will be even harder in the Alps. Today was proof you cannot follow everything. I used everything I had to keep the jersey.”