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Julian Alaphilippe restores French pride with rainbow jersey comeback

French team pulls out perfectly-delivered tactic to take first world title since 1997 and heal wounds after a disappointing Tour de France.

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Following a drubbing on home roads at the 2020 Tour de France, French pride was restored Sunday when Julian Alaphilippe delivered a pitch-perfect victory to claim the world title.

After French hopes flamed out at the Tour, including his own when he lost the yellow jersey due to a time penalty, Alaphilippe became the ninth French rider to win the prized rainbow jersey.

Alaphilippe was literally speechless as he sobbed in tears on the winner’s podium in Imola to become the first French world champion since 1997.

“The rainbow jersey, it’s the summit,” Alaphilippe said. “I don’t have words to describe it. It’s what I’ve always dreamed of.”

The 28-year-old finished off a perfectly delivered tactic by the French team, which started without star riders Thibaut Pinot or Romain Bardet. Those two were still recovering from disappointing rides in the Tour just a week before.

Instead, France brought a team solely dedicated to Alaphilippe, who played off the favored Belgian team to uncork the winning move on the final climb with about 12km to go, holding on to win 24 seconds ahead of Wout van Aert and Marc Hirschi.

“This was the dream of my career,” Alaphilippe said. “I’ve been close many times, but I was never on the podium. This is the top of my career.”

French national coach Thomas Voeckler took the reins of the team, putting all the firepower of the selection behind Alaphilippe.

“I never doubted the spirit of the riders,” Voeckler said. “My choice was confirmed with the way they raced the course. We were united behind Julian, and he really came through.”

Voeckler took over from longtime boss Cyrille Guimard last year as France’s national coach, and quickly delivered the victory. It’s the first French world title since Laurent Brochard in 1997.

“We were a little worried Julian would be caught in the closing kilometers, but when he came across the line, it’s an indescribable feeling. It’s huge what Julian did, what the whole team did,” Voeckler said. “The guys stuck to the plan I wanted to put into place, and everyone sacrificed for Julian. Everyone worked for one rider, and I am so proud of them.”

French teammate Guillaume Martin, who finished 11th in the 2020 Tour as the top Frenchman, said the rainbow jersey will help salve some of the disappointment from the Tour.

French riders won two stages — Alaphilippe in stage 2 and Nans Peters in stage 8 — but no French rider could mount a serious challenge for yellow at the Tour.

“I have heard recently following the Tour that the French are lagging behind the other nations,” Martin said. “Today we responded. We saw a tight-knit team all day.”

The victory Sunday puts Alaphilippe into elite company. Only eight other French riders have won the world title. The last was Brochard in 1997, with Georges Speicher (1933), Antonin Magne (1936), Louison Bobet (1954), André Darrigade (1959), Jean Stablinski (1962), Bernard Hinault (1980), and Luc Leblanc (1994) before him.

Alaphilippe broke a 23-year world title drought for France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

In many ways, the rainbow jersey is more of a just reward for Alaphilippe than the yellow jersey. Last year, Alaphilippe energized France by carrying the maillot jaune into the Alps, but he always said he never truly believed he will ever win the Tour.

Instead, he shines in the one-day races, where his explosive power and finishing speed make him hard to beat in the hillier courses. He counts two editions of Flèche Wallonne as well as wins at Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche, and Clásica San Sebastián on his burgeoning palmarès.

Alaphilippe had been a top favorite the past several editions of the worlds on courses that favored him. In Norway in 2017, he was 10th. His best chance came in Innsbruck in 2018, but he crossed the line eighth. Last year, he was 28th in the rain-soaked Yorkshire worlds.

This time, everything went right for Alaphilippe. After his team set him up going into the final decisive laps, the course design was tailor-made for his attacking style. A long-range attack by Tour-winner Tadej Pogačar forced Belgium and the Swiss to chase.

Almost everyone knew Alaphilippe was going to attack on the final climb, and he still had the legs to hold off the chase.

“I knew I had to give the maximum on the final climb,” Alaphilippe said. “On the last climb, I went full-gas to gain some lead before the descent. I stopped thinking and just dug in. With 200m to go, I saw they couldn’t catch me anymore, and my dream came true.”

While Alaphilippe’s realization of the rainbow jersey came true, France still has some unfinished business with the Tour.

A year in the rainbow jersey, including having a Frenchman race in next year’s Tour in the stripes, will certainly fill the French cycling establishment with pride.

France has no bigger star right now than Alaphilippe, and there couldn’t be a better ambassador for French cycling.