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Julian Alaphilippe sets tone on 2021 with opening-stage attack

French star debuts rainbow jersey season with long-distance attack and then takes pulls in victorious sprint.

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Julian Alaphilippe is always full gas, even when the odds are stacked against him.

The reigning world champion didn’t waste any time to show off his rainbow stripes in 2021, and uncorked a long-distance attack with 70km to go in Thursday’s opening stage at the Tour de la Provence. And after getting reeled in with about 2km to go, he tucked into the pack and took pulls to set up Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammate Davide Ballerini for the sprint victory.

That’s how Alaphilippe rolls.

“I had some fun,” Alaphilippe said. “I made an effort. I tried, and it was in play until very close to the finish. With a strong side wind, it was smart to stay at the front. I was still thinking of Davide for the sprint. It’s a great start for us.”

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The 28-year-old is intent on making his world champion’s season count. Already one of the most entertaining and aggressive riders in the bunch, “Ala-panache” seems committed to squeezing something out of a race every time he toes up to the line.

Alaphilippe’s sortie set the tone for Deceuninck-Quick-Step on its first day of racing in 2021. Following team tradition, it kept alive a string of winning its first race of the season since 2019.

A series of race cancelations saw Alaphilippe join his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammates at the four-day Tour de la Provence to open the 2021 campaign. After a relaxed start, the tempo ramped up in the second half of Thursday’s stage along France’s blustery Côte d’Azur when Alaphilippe linked up with the attacking Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) and Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers).

Ciccone was equally motivated to animate the race following a string of setbacks last season that included nose surgery and a bout of COVID-19. The budding Italian star jumped, and the leading trio carved out a promising gap of about three minutes on the lumpy finale across the vineyards and hills of France’s stunning Provence region.

“I think not many people expected me to attack in my first race, especially on a stage like this, but today I decided to follow my feeling,” Ciccone said. “I had good legs, good energy, and [my attack] was a way to draw the line to my bad season last year. I wanted to prove to myself that I am ready to turn the page.”

Ciccone faded in the closing kilometers, but Alaphilippe and Moscon hung on until about two kilometers to go when pressure from Groupama-FDJ and UAE-Team Emirates despite some blocking by Deceuninck-Quick-Step ended their adventure.

Rather than sit up, Alaphilippe jumped straight into the group not only to keep his GC options alive but quickly got to work to help position Ballerini for the sprint. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) got the early gap, but Ballerini powered around one of last season’s top sprinters against strong winds to catch him at the line.

With Mont Ventoux and a climbing stage to Chalet Reynard looming Saturday, Alaphilippe was quick to downplay his GC chances. But odds are he will at least rev up the engine to test his early-season form, and, as always, put on a good show.

That’s the Alaphilippe vibe.

“I wanted to try [Thursday] because you never know if it could have worked out,” he said. “I think I will pay for my efforts in the next few days, so the GC is secondary right now. The goal is already fulfilled with a nice win by Davide.”

Julian Alaphilippe set the tone for 2021 with a long-range attack in his first race of the season. Photo: James Startt

The French star is debuting on home roads ahead of an ambitious season. New for this spring is a larger emphasis on the spring calendar, with scheduled starts at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He’s also targeting Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of the bigger targets at the Tour de France, the Olympic Games, and a world title defense in Flanders.

“I came here to test myself and to see where I am, and prepare for the next races,” Alaphilippe said. “It’s always good to have a good start.”

A “good start” could result in a great season, not only for Alaphilippe, but for bike racing fans as well.