A little shrug, a head tilt, and a “pfft” noise is French for anything from “we shall see,” to “why not,” to “of course,” to “it’s out of my hands,” depending on context. Julian Alaphilippe has used the gesture in every press conference since he took the lead at the Amgen Tour of California, usually in response to questions about retaining his overall lead. He didn’t know what was possible, truly. His guess was as good as ours. That is, until Friday, when we all found out together.
Or did we?
The young Frenchman rode an impressive time trial in Folsom, finishing in eighth, 45 seconds behind BMC’s Rohan Dennis. “It was very special for me today, I have never been the last rider to go, with the yellow jersey, in a time trial,” he said. The result is that Alaphilippe retains his yellow jersey by 16 seconds over Dennis, who has just two opportunities remaining to close the gap. Neither looks particularly promising for overhauling the Frenchman: a difficult day in Santa Rosa that ends with a flat finish, and a flat circuit in Sacramento. Alaphilippe has likely hopped the largest hurdle on his way to the first stage race victory of his career.
Riding so well in a weeklong stage race, particularly one that features both uphill finishes and a time trial of decent length, invites the inevitable questions surrounding prospect and potential. The French media have already begun to draw comparisons to Richard Virenque, twice on the podium and seven times a stage winner at the Tour de France before he was swept up in the Festina Affair. To the French, it’s the highest of praise. To Alaphilippe, it seems to be mostly nonsense.
“I’m really having fun on the bike. I must keep my feet on the ground,” he said. He’s having too much fun, it would seem, to buy into the monk-like lifestyle the grand tours require. His favored territory is the Ardennes, where the 23-year-old has already wracked up a palmares that would be the envy of a man 10 years his senior.
“I’m not a real climber. It requires so many sacrifices,” he said. “Even if I like those finishes, you can’t really say that I’m a climber.
Still, Friday’s ride was impressive. It proves that he can, in fact, throw down a good time trial even on a windy course. Earlier in the week, Alaphilippe said he rarely trains on his TT bike, which makes the ride even more notable.
Alaphilippe wasn’t sure he could hold off a specialist like Dennis, he said earlier in the week. But he was not scared of Friday’s time trial. “I knew it was going to be violent, but I’m used to giving it everything I have,” he said. Dennis admitted that he might have underestimated the Frenchman’s time trial skills. “I thought I could take a minute, a minute and a half on a really good day,” he said after the finish. He could not, at least not on this day.
It’s tempting, following a performance like Alaphilippe’s on Friday, to move from that French “we shall see” gesture into “we’ve seen,” and to begin to sort a young rider into a new category. But we haven’t seen enough to do that, not really, and Alaphilippe knows it. California is not the Tour.
“What I really would like in the future is winning a great classic,” Alaphilippe said. “I still have a lot to learn but I’m actually still learning things every day here. And this week brought me some information about myself, and what I can do. For me, every race is a lesson.”