Julian Alaphilippe came to La Flèche Wallonne with a job to do, but it wasn’t to win, or even try.
That’s why, as a sharply diminished peloton hit the lower slopes of the Mur de Huy and the riders around him honed in on the climb, the young Frenchman’s head seemed on a swivel, searching in vain for his Etixx-Quick-Step team leader, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski. He looked back once, twice, checking over his right shoulder and then his left. The rainbow stripes were nowhere to be seen. Kwiatkowski was too far back, with 600 meters to go, to contest for victory.
Sitting in ninth wheel as the gradient pitched up with 500 meters to go — 10 percent, 12 percent, 15 percent — Alaphilippe took a hand off his bars and called over race radio. What should he do?
“My sport director told me to just go for the victory,” he said after the race. And he did. At the top of the Mur de Huy it was Alaphilippe, not his world-champion teammate, who was closest to a flying Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), just one step away from victory.
The result was made all the more impressive by Alaphilippe’s age — he’s just 22 — and his earlier efforts over the penultimate climb, the new Côte de Cherave, where he was charged with chasing early attacks for his Etixx team leader.
“He had a strong performance and it was only his first time,” Kwiatkowski said. “He closed all the attacks on the second-to-last climb. He did a great job for me and in the final he still found the legs to contest the race. He was second, so we are very proud of him.”
With his second-place finish on Wednesday, Alaphilippe became the first French rider since Laurent Jalabert in 2000 to stand on the podium at Flèche Wallonne.
The performance was no fluke. The Mur doesn’t allow flukes. And Alaphilippe was seventh at last weekend’s Amstel Gold Race, and finished second in a difficult finale at the Volta Catalunya last month.
So who is this young French phenom? And how far can he go?
Alaphilippe is a two-time Under-23 French cyclocross champion from Saint-Amand Montrond, in the rolling geographic center of France. He was discovered by Johan Molly, an Etixx masseur and occasional talent scout, and came to the WorldTeam through its development squad, Etixx-Inhed.
At 5-foot-8 and 136 pounds, Alaphilippe is slim. Body type alone is no guarantee of success in the long, hilly classics of late April, but these are the races Alaphilippe believes he is suited for.
“This is the kind of race on which I think I can grow in the future. I had never climbed the Mur de Huy. It was a discovery. I can be happy. Second, it’s still a surprise for my first participation,” Alaphilippe told AFP.
“I’m still a young rider trying to gain experience and am happy that I can be there to both help my teammate, and also try if there is an opportunity for myself in the finale. One day I’d like to try and win these kinds of races, which I love. I will carry on and keep learning from both my teammates and the peloton around me.”
Second place on the Mur, a climb that is notoriously difficult to time, shows a level of maturity, and patience, beyond his years. It shows an ability to position well, too; he hit the Mur inside the top 15, and followed all the right wheels through its lower slopes, landing in Valverde’s wake at the key moment.
“Second place, it is always a defeat, but Valverde isn’t just anyone,” he said. “I had too much lactic acid in the legs. The pain was really intense in the last 200 meters.”
Alaphilippe’s next challenge will be Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. It will be his first participation, and he’ll work for Kwiatkowski, he said, but his ride Wednesday has put other teams on notice: Etixx now has two weapons for the Ardennes.
“I hope to play an important role in the team strategy to help Michal in the front so the team can be able to contest the finish,” Alaphilippe said.