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Tour de France

Commentary: Alaphilippe is a freakish talent — and that’s a good thing

France has been in desperate need of a rider capable of winning the Tour. Julian Alaphilippe has said it isn’t him. But do you believe him?

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What is this guy, this Julian Alaphilippe? Is he a climber? A sprinter? A GC rider? Or is he an entertainer? Everyone is trying to work that question out. He was crowned King of the Mountains in last year’s Tour de France, in which he won a stage in both the Alps and the Pyrenees.

Maybe he’s a classics specialist. He did, after all, win Strade Bianche in March, riding away from Jakob Fuglsang and crossing the line on his own. He then backed up that win with a fantastic coup, out-sprinting an elite selection at Milano-Sanremo. Then, at the end of April, he flew up the brutally steep Mûr de Huy to win Flèche Wallonne.

The compact Frenchman has found his stride, he isn’t afraid to attack, and when he does he does so with panache. Stage races, one-day races… and yesterday he was part of the Quick-Step team time trial, helping power the team to within 0.83 seconds of the GC armada of Team Ineos.

Now, after claiming his third stage win at the Tour de France in his third start in the race, he’s wearing the yellow jersey. What’s next in his bag of tricks? Is he going to win the Tour de France?

We watch and wait because with each race his value rises, not only because he’s a winner, but because of the way in which he wins. Come on, admit it: You were there on the couch while watching the final kilometers of Monday’s stage 3 from Binche to Épernay on Monday leaning into the cushions as he sped around corners at ridiculous speed. You probably flinched a little when he, so effortlessly, slipped off the front of his saddle and tucked himself on the top tube while going 70 kph, gripping his bars on the tops, then in the drops.

Alaphilippe, wearing the King of the Mountains polka-dot jersey at the 2018 Tour, greets his teammate Bob Jungels after stage 17. Photo: Tim De Waele/ Getty Images

He squirms and wiggles and seems as though he’s urging his bike to go faster. Even his fidgeting seems designed to push the bike ahead. While others are locked into position, concentrating on the wheel in front of them, or the surface of the road, or the depth of their breath, or the strength of their core, Alaphilippe is dancing away. Turning his head, ignoring bumps on the pavement and making us chew our nails as we wait to see if he will falter — or fall. But he doesn’t. He just keeps on with the show.

Watching him, bike racing is more than sport. He adds a little bit of art to his craft. And he does so after attacking an elite peloton on a gradient of 20 percent, leaving all behind him to wonder: What are we going to do now?

The Alaphilippe Show first hit mainstream airwaves when he landed at the Tour in 2016. He was second in stage 2, on the uphill finish at Cherbourg, sandwiched between Peter Sagan and Alejandro Valverde. He wasn’t finished with just that result. In that Tour debut three years ago, he was 24 and he was excited to be there, testing his limits. Attacking, climbing, sprinting… crashing. For many, the real introduction to this cycling maestro was when he hit a wall in the time trial in the Ardèche. You know that photo, don’t you? Look at it again and I’ll bet you’ll cringe.

How is it possible that he finished that acrobatic maneuver without breaking bones and his spirit? Who is this freak? Look at that photo again and ask, “Would I get up and ride again just moments after doing that?” Are you nodding? Really? Come on… be honest. I confess: I’m almost a quivering mess each time I see that shot.

He didn’t just get back up. He got back on the bike. He finished that TT. And two days later, he was on the attack — again — finishing fifth in a mountain stage at his first Tour.

Back then, he insisted he wasn’t going to be a GC rider. He couldn’t climb well enough, he told the French media, desperate for a new champion — a champion with enough charisma to stir emotions and keep the fans engaged. The thing is, Alaphilippe is that guy.

He’d skip the Tour in 2017 but return the next year to further demonstrate his star qualities. And now here he is again: already a winner of a stage. More than that, he’s the leader of the race. Oh man, what’s next? He prompts so many questions and consistently coughs up the answers. How good is he? Very good. How good can he be? Going on his current trajectory, it’s too difficult to tell. He doesn’t seem to understand what limits are. Let’s go, he seems to say, one challenge conquered, what’s next?

There’s a reason he was a favorite for the world title last year. He is in an entirely new league in an era when even the best riders are happy to classify themselves. While others either climb or sprint or endure the stress of being a team’s GC leader, the Frenchman with the musketeer aesthetic thrives in all circumstances.

It was almost a relief when he faltered in Innsbruck and lost contact with the lead group on the final, brutally steep climb at worlds. He is, we learned that day, fallible. Phew!

If he raced into the rainbow jersey, French cycling would have been ignited with even more enthusiasm than what now exists in the home of the Tour.

An American in France

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