Tales from the Tour: “When you have the opportunity, you have to seize it”

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It’s been a year since one of the greatest Tours de France in any of our lifetimes. The greatest, some say, since the 1989 battle between LeMond and Fignon. And so, in the absence of any Tour to talk about, we thought we’d reminisce. We’ll be posting some of our favourite stories from last year’s Tour a year on.

Here’s the first. A year ago today, Julian Alaphilippe took the yellow jersey in the Champagne sparkle of northern France.

EPERNAY, France (CT) — Shortly after Julian Alaphilippe set off on his own, some twenty minutes before he would crest the final brutal climb and throw his hands in the air, French military jets flew in patriotic formation over the Champagne vineyards of Epernay, straight over the finish line, and shot off into the distance.

“It’s a sign from the French gods,” a reporter next to me joked. “Now he’ll definitely win.”

On the Tour’s first day in France, a long trek south that ended near the glitzy Rue du Champagne, a Frenchman stole France’s heart, and showed a bit of his own. Alaphilippe sat on the little white swivel chair in the interview zone and answered questions as the gravity of the maillot jaune settled around him, until it was too much to bear. He stopped, turned away, brushed his face, then stood up and shook out his hands, like he was trying to walk off the tears as if it were a stubbed toe.

He sat down. He looks like Pantani, a bit. A pirate beard and lean features. An emotive face, trying its best to hold in emotions that will not be held.

“When you have the opportunity, you have to seize it,” he said.

Stage three was marked for Alaphilippe. If Italy teaches us anything it’s that good wine likes hills, so no surprise that this French bastion of bubbly held a few. After a long, mostly flat stage, highlighted by a classic case of long-distance Wellensing from Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens, Alaphilippe used the penultimate climb, the Côte du Mutigny, as his launch point. At the top lay bonus seconds, and for him, a gap.

“I should have waited until the end, I know, but I just went full gas when I saw the gap,” he said.

It was too early. Even the Frenchman in the crowd next to me thought so, omens in sky or not. “Why now?” he asked, to nobody in particular.

“I was alone to the finish, but knew I needed 30 to 40 seconds,” Alaphilippe said later. “I gave everything.”

Behind, Ineos stretched itself forward, but the elastic snapped. Michael Woods, handy in the Ardennes and momentarily freed of his obligations to Rigoberto Uran, hesitated. By the time he moved it was too late.

“He was just spinning away from all of us,” Woods said. “It was pretty beautiful.”

Head down, legs churning, Alaphilippe pulled his lead to a minute, even as the best in the world chased. He dropped like a stone down the backside of the final climb. It was enough.

With the yellow jersey on his shoulders, Alaphilippe becomes the first Frenchman since Tony Gallopin in 2014 to lead the Tour de France. He has, barring catastrophe, at least two days to enjoy it. The Vosges loom, and the Planche des Belles Filles, and with it the first opportunity for the GC men to test themselves, and each other. Alaphilippe will fight to defend, he said. It’d be nice; after la Planche, he’d have the better part of a week before another real test.

But really, given the tears, today seemed to be enough.

“I will continue doing things my way,” he said.

“I dreamt of this.”

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