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Julian Alaphilippe’s long road to the rainbow stripes

The 28-year-old Alaphilippe has often been a favorite in the race for the rainbow jersey, but until this past weekend, he always came up short.

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I’ve known Julian Alaphilippe since he was still an amateur. And as long as I’ve known him, he has dreamed of becoming a world champion. It has always been a dream based in reality. After all, Alaphilippe is a punchy climber with a strong finishing sprint. In short, he is the ideal rider for a race like the world championships. While the 28-year old has often been a favorite in the race for the rainbow jersey, until this past weekend, he always came up short.

From the first time I met Alaphilippe at the Tour de l’Avenir in 2013, one thing was instantly clear—he is a brilliant bike racer. Already it was obvious that he was one of the world’s best descenders, and even as an amateur, few riders have ever looked better on a bike. And the fact that he is a class-“A” nice guy doesn’t hurt.

Since turning professional, he quickly confirmed all of his promise. Already in his second year as a professional, he served notice when he finished second at the Flèche-Wallonne, before going on to win it twice. And his patented punch proved useful in Monuments like Milano-Sanremo, not to mention the Tour de France, where he has won numerous stages as well as the polka-dot jersey awarded to the best climber in 2018. And who can forget his inspired two-week run in yellow just last year?

Julian Alaphilippe won stage 7 of the the 2013 Tour de l’avenir. Photo: James Startt

But while Alaphilippe has been a consistent winner year in and year out, one victory has remained elusive—the world championships.

For the past three years, Alaphilippe has been the leader of the French national team. But until this year, he continued to come up short.

In Innsbruck in 2018, the steep final climb appeared tailor-made for a rider that was so at ease on the steep pitches of the Mur de Huy in the Flèche-Wallonne. Instead he cramped, and could only watch in vain as Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, Canadian Michael Woods, and Alaphilippe’s countryman Romain Bardet powered off the front.

I ran into Philippe Gilbert later that night as he was going to meet Les Bleus, the French national team, for a drink. He invited me to join them. I didn’t refuse.

Alaphilippe arrived soon after with his teammates. He did his best to put on a good face. Alaphilippe is like that. But as the evening wore he also showed his frustration. He was disappointed in himself and felt simply that he didn’t live up to his role as the leader of his country in the world championships.

A year later, no rider beat him at the world championships, but instead the freezing rains in Yorkshire took their toll. At the finish his face was swollen, looking more like a beaten boxer than a bike racer. He stopped next to me after the line, but there were no words, only exhaustion. As I often do, I sent Alaphilippe a couple of images from the race. And, as always, he responds.

Alaphilippe was not satisfied with his performance at the 2019 world road championships. Photo: James Startt

“It was really a special day,” he said, putting the defeat into perspective. “When you come to try to win and in the end, you are fighting with yourself just to finish, well…that’s the tough law of cycling.”

Both of those defeats, however, came at the end of his two best years as a professional. Since the start of 2020, Alaphilippe had struggled to find his best form. When I saw him at the Tour of San Juan in January, he was already slightly off-key. Already he was incredibly thin, but he was quick to tell me that it was not because he was super fit. “You know I just finished last season so tired that I had to take some time off. And I lost some muscle.”

Not surprisingly the early-season results were less flattering. In Tour of Colombia — where he often scored and early-season success — he could do no better than third on a stage. And in Paris-Nice, under the oncoming cloud of COVID-19 lockdown, he was still not at his best, scoring a couple of top-five finishes while testing his condition in long breakaways.

While the two-month confinement in France (as well as in Andorra where he currently lives) allowed him to recharge his batteries, Alaphilippe still took time to return to his best condition.

Sure he blew the race apart on the Poggio in Milano-Sanremo, but he paid dearly for the effort on the descent. Clearly in the red, his trademark descending became tentative, as he was caught by Wout van Aert, who beat him at the line. And while he grabbed the yellow jersey once again in the Tour de France after his stage two victory into Nice, it was obvious that there would be no Cinderella story this year—at least not on the roads of the Tour.

But what many did not know was that Alaphilippe already had his eyes on the race for the rainbow jersey. And he planned his assault perfectly.

“I raced the Tour differently this year and I was thinking about the worlds already at the start in Nice,” he said after his victory in Imola on Sunday. “I was happy to win a stage and wear the yellow jersey. Afterward, I worked for the team, but I only had one idea in my head and that was the rainbow jersey.”

The circuit in Imola once again suited Alaphilippe well, he knew he would only have one opportunity to make his move — up the final ascension of Gallisterna climb. But he was far from the only rider with that same idea in mind.

Weather played a significant role in the outcome of the 2019 world road cycling championships. Photo: James Startt

Attacks started nearly from the foot of the climb with Vincenzo Nibali, Marc Hirschi, and Michal Kwiatkowski all trying their hand. But when Alaphilippe jumped, he immediately broke free. Still, though, over a dozen kilometers remained to the finish. Once again Belgian rival Wout van Aert led the chase, but unlike in Sanremo, he was not alone. And his efforts were quickly muted by others like Jakob Fuglsang, Hirschi, and Kwiatkowski, who although eager to catch Alaphilippe, did not want to tow van Aert to the line only to be dusted by him in the final sprint. And unlike in Sanremo, Alaphilippe was clearly more in control.

Alaphilippe was clearly nervous as he looked back repeatedly on the high-speed descent. But he remained in control, and while his gap never exceeded 15 seconds, it never fell below 10 seconds and he remained focused until the final kilometer, when he began to understand that this year his dream would finally come true. At the line, he made his patented right-handed punch, as he does whenever he wins solo. But this time he did so a few meters earlier, allowing him extra time to through both arms out in the air while cocking his head back and looking to the sky with the sudden realization that the long road to the rainbow had finally arrived.

“This is the dream of my life,” he said simply afterward. “This was always the race of my dreams. I always placed the worlds above all of the other races that I have won. This victory didn’t come out of nowhere. I have already been here as a race favorite on a racecourse that suited me perfectly but things never worked out. But I learned from those experiences. To be the world champion is just my career dream.”