Slotted in between mountains stages came Friday’s anticipated 27.2 kilometer time trial in Pau. The crucial rendezvous for general classification riders has come and gone and yet the leader remains the same.
It’s not just those watching, either. The man himself repeated one word often as he made his way through the question session after an amazing performance that saw him finish 14 seconds ahead of defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas, and 36 seconds ahead of Thomas De Gendt and 2017 Tour runner-up Rigoberto Uran.
Let’s consider a few responses from Alaphilippe’s sessions with the TV crews in Pau.
“I think I’m the most surprised,” came one statement.
This was followed by: “I surprised myself getting the yellow jersey.”
But is this it? When will the glorious run end for the first Frenchman to win a time trial while wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour in 35 years. (By the way, that was Laurent Fignon in 1984.) And it happened to come on the very day of the 100th anniversary of the first ever presentation of the maillot jaune, July 19, 1919 (worn by Eugene Christophe).
“I used a lot of energy, but I didn’t imagine the yellow jersey or winning the TT in front of Geraint Thomas,” he continued.
Alaphilippe didn’t expect it. But Thomas and his Ineos team were realistic. Apparently discussion at the dinner table yielded a consensus that the Frenchman would retain his yellow jersey.
He did more than that.
It was a win that would surely also surprise the Welshman and his entourage. It was also s ride that earned Alaphilippe a new legion of admirers. He is the only rider who has become the first in 2019 to win more than one stage. But there’s a lot more to it.
There it is, in the result sheet at the end of a long, hot day – but a relatively quick race.
The first rider to set off on the challenging course was Alaphilippe’s compatriot, Yohann Offredo, the ‘Lanterne Rouge’ after 2,181.1km of racing in the 106th Tour.
The Wanty Groupe Gobert rider rolled down the start ramp under blue skies and with temperature creeping up into the early 30s (Celsius). It was hot. The course was challenging. And, from 2.00pm through to 5.19pm, riders took on the challenge of a loop that began and finished in Pau: 27.2km on a route that organizers insisted beforehand would not elicit huge time gaps between the GC favorites.
It’s tough, they said. The TT specialists would hold an advantage over the climbers, they continued, but not too much of an advantage.
Take the example of another Frenchman, Thibaut Pinot, and we realize that the prediction largely rang true. The Groupama-FDJ rider, who had been as high as third overall (after stage eight), isn’t famous for his time trial ability. He climbs. He is cheered by the French public. He earns rewards – and, in the past, even an appearance on the podium in Paris. But he’s not exactly a TT man.
Still, in Pau, Mr Pinot was seventh, less than a minute behind his compatriot.
That’s another surprise but also a reiteration of claims that the course was challenging enough to stop true specialists gaining on the all-rounders.
Still, Alaphilippe, ahead of Thomas? In a TT? Wearing the yellow jersey? Wow!
It happened and it impressed the locals enormously. In the press room in Pau, the site where many interesting yarns have been written in recent years, there was even applause as the leader of the race also won the stage.
Why? Did journalists become fans too? It’s possible. Why? Because there’s panache and charisma and – dare we say it – even a bit of class.
There’s also humility, cheekiness and a sense of fun.
In cycling? Fun? Yeah, it can happen.
It may be a serious sport but Alaphilippe reminds us regularly that, while he’s paid to race his bike – and surely soon to be paid even more handsomely after today’s effort – he does it for the love of riding.
Isn’t that nice? A rider who not only loves riding, he loves racing. He puts on a show, questions his own efforts, grins a little more – and lures in more fans day after day.
“I was really motivated to do a strong performance on this parcours and with the yellow jersey,” he smirked, then added: “I didn’t expect that I could win with more than a 10-second advantage.
“It’s just unbelievable I’m so happy.”
Elation is hard to hide and we wouldn’t want to see anything but a satisfied smile and a sense of genuine accomplishment. It was impressive, no doubt. But it is still surprising.
The questions kept on coming and Alaphilippe continued to deny he’s “a real favorite” for the title.
Geraint Thomas, suggested one journo, says you could be a real threat to this yellow jersey for the rest of the race. How much of a threat do you think you are?
“I don’t think so,” replied the 27-year-old. “I just want to continue to enjoy it, day after day.
“You know, I’ve spent a lot of energy up until now.
“For sure today I did a really strong performance but tomorrow is the first summit finish. It’s a real hard mountain stage. It’s completely different than what we did until now, so I don’t want to dream too much.
“I’m just so happy to do what I did today and to still be in yellow.”