Tour de France 2020

Commentary: Julian Alaphilippe cannot win the Tour de France — or can he?

Are we to believe Julian Alaphilippe, who says he is chasing stage wins and not overall victory at the 2020 Tour de France? We analyze Alaphilippe's potential as a GC racer this year.

Julian Alaphilippe is chasing stage wins and not overall victory at the 2020 Tour de France.

He can’t win.

He won’t win.

He’s going to give up the yellow jersey soon enough, right?

Um…

The first pressing debate around this year’s battle for yellow erupted the moment French musketeer Julian Alaphilippe attacked to win Sunday’s second stage, a move that netted him the maillot jaune. Alaphilippe’s rocket-like acceleration on the Col des Quatre Chemins kicked off the decisive move, and he handily out-kicked breakaway companions Marc Hirschi (Sunweb) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) to win.

The victory was confirmation that the flamboyant Frenchman is, indeed, on top form at this Tour de France.

The argument now is whether or not Alaphilippe can win the overall. As you may remember, Alaphilippe was the GC revelation of the 2019 Tour de France. His stunning win on Sunday immediately brought back memories from last year, when he improbably wore the yellow jersey for 14 stages and nearly held on to win. He beat Geraint Thomas in an individual time trial, for crying out loud. It was the most impressive ride by a non-traditional GC rider in ages.

Alaphilippe shot out of the peloton on the Col de Quatre Chemins. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Only at the conclusion of the 2019 Tour did Alaphilippe finally lose steam and fall to 5th place overall. It was a gusty ride that energized French fans and convinced more than a few North American cyclists to grow a stylish goatee.

Ever since his wild ride in 2019, Alaphilippe and his Deceuninck–Quick-Step PR staff have assured the world that he has absolutely NO intention of winning the 2020 Tour de France. Yellow jersey be damned, they have said, because this year’s Tour is about stage wins. Back before the COVID-19 pandemic upended the season, the 2020 Olympics served as Alaphilippe’s Tour foil.

Why chase yellow when a shot at gold was at hand?

After organizers canceled the Games, Alaphilippe stayed on message. He would attack, entertain, and win stages at the Tour, but forego a focused effort on achieving a podium place in Paris.

Are we to believe him?

Let’s break down both sides.

Why can’t Alaphilippe win? Deceuninck–Quick-Step’s Tour de France roster doesn’t exactly scream yellow-jersey team. Top sprinter Sam Bennett is here, alongside the team’s leadout guy Michael Mørkøv. The team’s has powerful rouleurs in Tim Declercq, Rémi Cavagna, and Kasper Asgreen, and Bob Jungels and Dries Devenyns are strong enough climbers.

But there’s no team of top climbing domestiques to spearhead a true GC run. Deceuninck–Quick Step left its best pure climber, James Knox, at home.

Alaphilippe’s explosive style is also a sign that yellow is potentially out of reach. Retired legend Jens Voigt pointed out on today’s The VeloNews Podcast that Alaphilippe’s stunning attack on the Col des Quatre Chemins, and then his winning sprint over Hirschi, are signs that he’s still a tightly-wound ball of muscle. Such a physique is great for those big efforts on the Mur de Huy and Côte de La Redoute, but may not the best for suffering up the Galibier while holding 375 watts.

The emotion was easy to see on Alaphilippe’s face after his dramatic win. Photo: Stephan Mantey – Pool/Getty Images

OK, so why can Alaphilippe win?

Take a look at this year’s route and you will see a parcours that seems custom-fit to Alaphilippe’s talents. The climbs are steep and short and they fall in succession. The time gaps are likely to be slim heading into the final few stages.

There are several routes that seem destined to instill explosive chaos into the front group. Only at the very end does the race serve up a stage that could smash Alaphilippe — stage 17 finishes with the long and grinding ascent of the Col de la Loze, which suits a more traditional climber like Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) or Nairo Quintana (Arkea Samsic).

There’s also the uncertainty that the race will even reach the Col de la Loze. It’s a scenario nobody wants to happen, of course. But if the Tour is truncated due to COVID-19, and Alaphilippe is in yellow, could he go down as the winner?

The likely scenario, of course, is a repeat of what we saw in 2019. Alaphilippe will again dazzle us with his panache, and he will attack attack attack. He will fix his claws on the maillot jaune like some type of crazed animal, and simply hold on as long as he can. He will smile, he will cry, he will grimace and groan. He will honor his late father who died earlier this year. He will grab ahold of the race’s emotional heart and refuse to let go, just like he did last year.

And if that’s the case, then the 2020 Tour de France will have the storyline it requires to overcome the hanging clouds of COVID-19 uncertainty.

After all, whether or not Julian Alaphilippe wins yellow will be of secondary concern. How Alaphilippe wins our affection will be the most important story.