A lot of ink has been spilled over the past few weeks about the marvelous French renaissance in the Tour de France.
Indeed, it was gripping theater to witness French riders fighting deep into the third week with real possibilities of recapturing the yellow jersey. When Bernard Hinault won his fifth yellow jersey in 1985, no one in the international peloton could have ever imagined it would be France’s last as of 2019.
Generations of French fans have suffered without having one of their own to cheer for. So it was endearing and completely understandable to watch the long-suffering French fans revel as Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) defiantly carried national pride deep into the Alps. Sadly, the dream just as quickly unraveled in a span of a few hours on the road to Tignes. A tearful Pinot pulled out with injury and the high-flying Alaphilippe inevitably drifted back to earth.
Was this delicious French rebirth the real deal or merely an enticing mirage?
Times have certainly changed from a decade or so ago when French riders were the laughingstock of a peloton racing at two speeds. More than anything, this year’s Tour confirmed French cycling is back. Along with Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), a two-time podium finisher who’s struggled of late, France can legitimately hope to win the Tour again. Pinot and Bardet are the real deal during three-week racing, and especially for Pinot, the future is very bright.
Alaphilippe is another story.
Let’s be honest. His 2019 Tour de France exceeded all expectations, and wonderfully so. But it’s a fairytale that likely will never happen again. As beautiful as it was, Alaphilippe will probably never finish in the top 10 at another Tour. And if we’re still being honest, let’s hope doesn’t even try.
Here’s why: First off, consider the context of his performance this summer. His two-week yellow jersey run came on a course that was ideal for his punchy attacking style. The Tour’s “highest ever” route was a one-off. Though it’s too early to say how the 2020 Tour course will shape up, this year’s route, short on time trials and packed with explosive finales, was perfect for Alaphilippe.
Another key factor: The absences of Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin, two riders who typically control the pace of any grand tour they start. That meant that this year’s Tour peloton unfolded without a “patron” or center of gravity. Team Ineos, though it did end up finishing one-two in Paris, was clearly off its dominating collective best. There was no point man or rider of reference in this year’s Tour. That was a key reason why it was so deliciously unpredictable to watch.
Into that void bolted Alaphilippe on the form of his life. Already on a tear through the spring, Alaphilippe hit the first week of the Tour at full gas, and just kept pouring it on. It was a beautiful thing to watch. It made this year’s Tour one of the most satisfying and fascinating that anyone’s seen since, well, the days of the Badger and Greg LeMond.
The yellow jersey gave Alaphilippe extra legs and defending the yellow tunic carried him further into the final week than even he expected. And, though it’s hard to conjecture, the weather-shortened stages over the final two mountain stages, likely only helped to stem what would have been even more painful hemorrhaging for the mustachioed Frenchman. This Tour was three days too long for Alaphilippe.
Could lightning strike twice for Alaphilippe? Unlikely.
There are a few reasons why. Next year, we can expect to see Team Ineos back in full-throttle mode, with the ever-improving Bernal, Geraint Thomas and Froome all gunning to reassert themselves. And with Jumbo-Visma on the rise, coupled with a Dumoulin also hopefully back in the fray, the 2020 Tour should see a return to the calibrated, controlled (and unexciting) tempo-racing we’ve all grown accustomed to each summer.
Alaphilippe was an incalculable gift for this year’s Tour. Yet arriving fifth overall into Paris is about as good as it’s ever going to get. And it appears that the man himself realizes that his dream-like run across the France was just that — a dream come true.
And that’s a good thing. Alaphilippe is a rare rider who can win in just about every terrain. His palmares are impressive by every measure, and only getting better, winning one-day races and stages across the calendar with panache and excitement in an invigorating and aggressive style that has become his trademark. He’s more Laurent Jalabert than Hinault or Laurent Fignon.
So far, it doesn’t seem that his recent spate of GC success has gone to his head. In post-Tour comments, “Loulou” said his major goal for 2020 is not to target the Paris podium and try to replicate his miracle ride of July, but instead to win the Tour of Flanders. Deceuninck-Quick-Step isn’t going to change its tune, either. After re-upping with the Belgian team for two more seasons, Alaphilippe won’t be expecting to have a team at his full disposal during next year’s Tour. The Belgian Boys race for the one-days and the sprints, and that’s not going to change, not even after Alaphilippe’s 2019 miracle.
Isn’t it better for everyone if Alaphilippe attacks in stage 2 next summer, rather than stay hidden in the peloton all the way to the first major summit finish on stage 15? There are plenty of riders doing that. Finishing in the top-10 of the Tour de France is an admirable and unfathomable feat. Let’s just hope Alaphilippe doesn’t get seduced by his power meter and agents whispering in his ear that he could win the Tour.
For Alaphilippe to seriously try to win the Tour, he’d need to largely give up on everything that’s brought him success so far in the peloton. He would need to transform his body, lose weight, and swap out his swashbuckling style for ever-steady tempo racing to endure the race of attrition in the Tour’s highest mountains. To win the Tour requires largely sacrificing an entire season for one race. Ask Bardet how that feels.
Cycling doesn’t need another lungs-on-legs grand tour rider trying to hang on as long as they can. If that’s what it takes to win a grand tour in the modern era, let’s hope Alaphilippe keeps doing what he does best.
One reason Alaphilippe performed so well in this year’s Tour was that he wasn’t even trying to race for the final podium. He was boldly grabbing the Tour by the scruff of the neck, and turned the traditional GC playbook upside down. The yellow jersey came to him because he was attacking off the front, not cautiously marking wheels. He held on as long as his legs allowed. And it was beautiful to witness.
It would be a huge loss for the Tour if he tried to makeover his aggressive, attacking style into a conservative, no-risk, watt-measuring tempo racer.
Few can up-end a race like he can. Maybe he could win the Vuelta a España one day, or even make a run for the top-10 in another Tour if the course suits his style. Better still would be to see Alaphilippe keep plying his trade — winning with aggression and unrivaled panache and style.
Just as the Badger always says after all these years, the best tactic is to attack! Let Pinot and Bardet carry the weight of a nation. Here’s hoping “Ala-panache” doesn’t change a thing.