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SACRAMENTO, CA (CT) — He came. He saw. And one year after narrowly missing out on the overall victory, Julian Alaphilippe returned — and conquered California.
It was the first stage-race victory for the young Etixx-QuickStep rider, and almost certainly not the last.
It was a victory that began on Gibraltar Road in Santa Barbara, where Alaphilippe attacked with 1500 meters to go and rode away from the field.
It was a victory that was protected in Folsom, where the 23-year-old Frenchman rode the time trial of his young career to defend the yellow jersey from a determined Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), becoming the youngest winner in the 11-year history of the race.
It was a victory that prompted the inevitable questions, particularly for a promising French stage racer — what next, and how far can he go?
Alaphilippe began his racing career in cyclocross — he took a silver medal at the 2010 junior world championship — and was viewed as a sprinter in the early part of his road career, winning the points competition at the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir and 2014 Tour de l’Ain.
His breakthrough performances came at the 2015 Ardennes classics, where he finished second to Alejandro Valverde at Flèche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He followed that up with his strong ride in California, where he won the Mt. Baldy climb and finished second overall to Peter Sagan.
A bout of mononucleosis soured the end of his 2015 season, and put him into a hole that took several months to climb out from, but a return to form at this year’s Ardennes — he was second, again, at Flèche, and sixth at Amstel Gold Race — proved that his health had returned.
Sagan, the 2015 California champion, predicted that Alaphilippe would win this year’s Amgen Tour before it began in San Diego.
“When we came here, on the first day, I said [Alaphilippe] is going to win California,” Sagan said. “He has had good results in other races, and everybody knew he was strong for this race.”
Because of his young age, his ability to climb, and his finishing kick, it’s too early to classify Alaphilippe as a classics rider or a future Grand Tour contender.
“Well, what he’s done is pretty good, isn’t it?” said Etixx director Brian Holm, when asked of his potential. “He probably needs to develop a little bit more. He probably will, then he could be a big one. But talking to about the Tour de France? That is a bit too early.”
Asked what precisely Alaphilippe needs to develop, Holm said that the mental aspect of high-stakes stage racing takes time to hone.
“He has to, of course, learn to stay a little bit calm,” Holm said. “And he’s gonna need to climb a little bit better, but that comes with age, you know?”
Alaphilippe admitted to having nerves during the final days of the race, both in Santa Rosa, when he was isolated with four BMC Racing riders after only 60km, and again on Sunday in Sacramento, with everything on the line and a fast field sprint on the table.
“I only realized I’d won when I passed the finish line today,” he said. “It was a really nervous last few kilometers, and I was really happy when I crossed the finish line. I didn’t think too much about the victory. Look what happened last year, I was in yellow on the last stage, but Peter took the time bonus. You never know what can happen, there could be a crash. The roads were bad in the final before the circuits, it was really dangerous. You can lose anywhere. I stayed very concentrated.”
Teammate Tom Boonen has seen his share of talented young riders over a 15-year pro career, and said that Alaphilippe ranks among the best.
“Time will tell,” Boonen said. “He has a lot of talent. A lot of talent. He’s one of the best young guys that I’ve seen on the team for a long while. But it depends on so many things. A crash on a bad moment, being there at the right time. But I think he has a lot of potential. Anything is possible with him. I think he arrived in California in reasonable shape and he just got better. He only needed one good mountain finish to achieve his lead, and he kept it very well.”
Asked which performance he was more proud of — his win on Gibraltar Road, or the time trial in Folsom, which preserved his race lead — Alaphilippe said it was the stage victory.
“To win is always something special,” Alaphilippe said. “The time trial was a good performance. I am not a TT specialist. I never train with my TT bike. I did my best, with the yellow jersey, I did even more. It was only 20km, so I could do something good. If it was 50 or 60km, maybe not, but for 20km I was able to do something okay. I was really okay, but for sure the victory in Gibraltar was the best moment, I don’t have a lot of opportunity to win, to win is always a good moment.”
Holm agreed that it was the finish atop Gibraltar which was the more important performance of the two.
“The climb,” he said. “The climb, because he was still saying he’s not fresh, he didn’t feel good, so that performance, without having good legs, is pretty all right wasn’t it? It’s nice, and it’s going to be nice when he comes with good legs.”
For any rider, but in particular a French rider, there’s nothing more important than the Tour de France. But Alaphilippe isn’t yet to put his name out there as the next great French stage-race hope. Instead, he seems to take a very relaxed approach towards his career trajectory.
“We will see,” he said. “I’ll take everything day by day. I would like to win a big classic, especially after my two podium finishes [at Flèche]. It’s a surprise for me to win the general classification. Last year I finished second behind Peter; this year, it was different. I’m really happy to win this. I just do my best every day, and to win is something special. I want to enjoy it with my team, and tomorrow, it’s another day. Voila.”
Asked when he might make his Tour debut, Alaphillipe said he hoped to be at the start in Mont Saint-Michel in July, but that nothing official had been determined within the Etixx-QuickStep team management.
“I’ll go home and rest, and then do the Dauphine, the national championships, and then, I hope, the Tour de France,” he said.
What he’ll do at the Tour de France remains to be seen. He’ll take it day by day. Voila.