CALPE, Spain (VN) — Julian Alaphilippe bounds into the hotel lobby, same as he ever was. He’s the first with a laugh, and always has a bounce in his step. What’s changed is everything in the cycling world around him — the expectations, the pressure, and the attention.
Alaphilippe hopes his spectacular 2019 season doesn’t change things too much. He vows to remain the same racer, with renewed ambitions that inevitably come with being so close to something so elusive as a French victory in the Tour de France.
When he turned pro in 2014, he was literally living for the moment, and he vows his racing spirit won’t disappear after his success last season.
For his 2017 debut at Milano-Sanremo, he didn’t know he was racing until three days before, and had never studied the route, watched videos of the finale, or even knew much about what the Italian monument is all about. A few days later, he nearly won and was part of the best finish-line photograph of 2017, with the shoulder-to-shoulder bike throw involving himself, Peter Sagan and eventual winner Michal Kwiatkowski. He returned last spring to win it for his first monument victory, setting the tone for his amazing 2019 run.
“It will be impossible to do what I did last year,” he said at a team camp media day. “It was really special, with so much emotion and so many quality wins. We will try, and I will do my best.”
Yet his yellow-jersey run did change something. Before the 2019 Tour started, he never dreamed he could seriously one day hope to win the Tour. Now he knows on the right course and in top condition — on a route very much like 2019 — he believes he could become a legitimate contender.
“It’s something I will start to think about, maybe not this year or next year, but when I am around 30, maybe I can try,” he said. “It’s not my main goal for this year.”
The 2019 season was one of accolades, personal milestones and tremendous success for “Loulou.” People recognize the dashing Frenchman on the street and shake his hand at the airport. Over the winter, he won the Velo d’Or prize, becoming the first Frenchman since Laurent Jalabert more than 20 years ago to claim the annual “best-rider” prize. He’s suddenly a national hero.
“I don’t spend a lot of time in France, but I can feel it,” he said. “People are always nice, stopping me, and thanking me, more than before. I am happy to make the people live the emotion.”
Last summer, Alaphilippe reignited a passion and love for the Tour de France for the host country that had been dormant for years. Every summer, there are always French stage-winners and even podium contenders, but no French rider has come as close to winning the Tour or holding the yellow jersey as long and as dramatically as Alaphilippe did last July.
“Now everyone expects me to win the Tour,” he said. “I learned it’s not easy to be in the yellow jersey for 14 days in the Tour. I was dead. Even my bike was tired.”
Alaphilippe, who brings a d’Artagnan-like swagger to the peloton, grew up almost smack-dab in the middle of France. His father was a drummer, and the young Alaphilippe tagged along in marching bands during France’s summer festival season, but he turned down a chance to study music because he considered the discipline required worse than school. Alaphilippe ended his studies after high school, and quickly found his calling on the bike.
His rise has been a steady drumbeat to the top. At 17, he won silver at the world junior cyclo-cross championship. After racing on the Armée de Terre team for two seasons, he joined Quick-Step’s famous and now-defunct development team. The team ran from 2013, the year Alaphilippe joined, until shuttering in 2016, producing such talent as Enric Mas, Florian Sénéchel, Rémi Cavagna, Max Schachmann, Jan Hirt, Ivan García and Jhonatan Narváez, among others.
Alaphilippe was always a shining light, and soon earned a reputation as a rider with talent and attacking instincts. It’s carried him far, and it’s a creed he still races with today.
“I like to surprise everyone,” Alaphilippe said. “I still like to have fun in the race. I have made some mistakes in the past and now I have more experience, but I still like to attack and to move the race.”
Within a few years, Alaphilippe emerged as a go-to guy in the stacked Deceuninck-Quick-Step lineup, especially in the hilly Ardennes and one-week stage races. He has evolved into a top “puncheur deluxe” of his generation, capable of winning such races as Flèche Wallonne and explosive hilltop finales at races like Tirreno-Adriatico or the Tour of the Basque Country. He brings a “jack-of-all-trades” skillset to any race he starts.
“I can do a sprint, but I am not Cavendish,” he said. “I can climb, but I am not [Bardet]. I like to try to do a bit of everything.”
As he’s matured as a racer, he’s also starting to hone his skills and race with a more tactical approach. Last spring, he targeted San Remo early, working on his explosiveness and sprint that he’d need on the Via Roma. After the classics, he spent weeks at altitude and trimmed down for the Tour. He won the first and nearly the second, eventually settling for fifth overall.
What Alaphilippe did last July was wholly unexpected, both by the peloton and the French public. He was seen as a stage-hunter and as a race animator, a rider who could chase the King of the Mountains jersey like he did in 2018, but not a legitimate contender. That changed with each passing stage in what was modern cycling’s most thrilling Tour in decades. When he won the time trial in Pau and carried the yellow jersey out of the Pyrénées, everyone dared to believe the dream might come true.
And just as fast, it seemed as if all of France’s dreams deflated at once in stage 19 when the race hit the Alps. For two weeks, Alaphilippe and compatriot Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) were charging at the front of the race. The inevitability of Team Ineos and two weather-shortened stages in the Alps foiled an entire nation’s hopes. Pinot abandoned in tears after a freak leg injury, and Alaphilippe succumbed to the elevation. Egan Bernal’s high-altitude genetics won the day — and eventually the Tour — on the Col de l’Iseran.
“I was never dreaming of winning the Tour, but when I was in yellow, of course, you have to keep fighting. Otherwise you don’t fight,” he said. “I always knew the last few days in the Alps would be hard for me, and it was.”
For 2020, he’s raising the bar, but on his terms. He’s downplaying any talk of yellow, and has already declared he’s back to stage-hunting duties for the 107th Tour, with one eye on the Olympic medal and another on the world title, both courses ideal for Alaphilippe’s aggressive, insistent and unpredictable style.
“What Julian achieved in 2019 is what a normal rider would dream of in an entire career,” said Deceuninck-Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere. “It is always hard to repeat. Julian has already shown he is a great champion, so we hope he can just repeat a few of these beautiful things.”
Alaphilippe debuts at the Vuelta a San Juan later this month, and will stay in South America for the Tour Colombia in February. He’ll target Paris-Nice, skip a title defense at both Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo, and dip his toes into Flanders racing at Dwars door Vlaanderen before his debut at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Then it’s straight into the Ardennes —no Paris-Roubaix just yet — before the Tour, Olympics, worlds and Lombardia.
Though the Olympic Games are naturally a part of his calendar, he signaled that if he had to choose between the gold medal and the rainbow jersey, he’d take the latter. A highly anticipated debut at the Tour of Flanders in April will fuel the hype machine for the next few months, but he’s more excited about taking on the Giro di Lombardia.
“I know what I want to do, and what I can do,” he said. “I know after what I did last year, a lot of people are saying I can win the Tour, but I know what I can do.”
It’s as if Alaphilippe knows that his 2019 Tour run was a once-in-a-lifetime performance. He’s not pretending to try to transform his natural strengths into a methodical, conservative grand tour racing machine. That means Alaphilippe will remain the rangy, wild and wonderfully unpredictable rider who’s delighted fans and foiled rivals over the past few seasons.
He’s still young — 28 in June — and improving. The road ahead is still wide open, and Alaphilippe clearly has every intention of hitting the accelerator. Just like he’s always done.