A rest day ride with Julian Alaphilippe

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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 by posting some of our favourite stories from last year’s Tour, a year on.

Here’s a story from the first rest day of the race, when we were embedded with Julian Alaphilippe and his Deceuninck-Quickstep squad on their e-bike powered rest-day ride.

Julian Alaphilippe has lost his Michael Mørkøv. Maximiliano Richeze, too. For the past kilometre, he’s been riding along, one hand on the bars, one wrapped around his phone, texting, trying to find his missing team-mates. They got split up somewhere around Albi Cathedral in a swarm of civilians trying to tail Deceuninck-Quickstep’s rest day ride, at that last roundabout, where the van I’m in went left and the team car went straight.

I’m surprised that the team managed to stick together that far, if I’m honest.

It’s a rest day, but I’m quickly getting an understanding that ‘rest’ is a relative term when you’re the darling of French cycling and wearing the yellow jersey. On the menu for Deceuninck-Quickstep today, besides trying not to get crashed by well-meaning fans, is a 10km photo-op ride on the new Specialized Creo ebike to a bar on the leafy banks of the Tarn river.

If that sounds like a soft option, let me assure you it’s not.

It’s hot in Albi today, with the sun bouncing off red brick and crowds of fans in promotional t-shirts lurking around team buses. Deceuninck-Quickstep’s is set up next to the railway station, across from a 3-star hotel where they’re holding a press conference. It runs long, but finally, it’s time for the rest day ride. After an hour of standing around waiting for anything to happen, there’s a manic couple of minutes as the team roll out through a blast of car horns and applause.

Speeding through the streets of Albi, they are the nucleus of an expanding and contracting mass of supporters who can’t believe their luck, rolling in a mutating bubble between a Specialized van with the boot open and a couple of follow cars.

There’s a fondo on, so there are road closures everywhere, and the route tomorrow has cut the city in two. In our van, up front, the driver’s teetering on the verge of a panic attack, trying to improvise a way through the cordon. On the floor out back is a videographer propped behind his tripod and hoping he doesn’t slide out.

We’ve got to pick a way out of the city while not crashing anyone, so take a last-ditch turn down a narrow cobbled street through the old quarter. Elia Viviani is right on our tail, riding right up at the bumper, trading jokes with the videographer – “Where was this bike for me yesterday?”

Alaphilippe throws a couple of playful tailwhips back and forth across the centre of the road. We squeeze around a narrow bend, millimetres from scraping a gash up the length of the van, and finally are on an open road out of the city. There’s a collective exhale.

Quickstep is 10 days into one of the most animated Tours in recent memory. They slogged through the Vosges and Massif Central and helped blow the race to hell yesterday, but today, you wouldn’t know it to look at them. They’re still consummate professionals – whippet-lean, with helmet strap perma-tans – but they’re a pack of gleeful children when you get them on an ebike. They lean into one another in mock argy-bargy, launch off curbs and rip skids.

Viviani rides alongside Alaphilippe, shoots him a playful glance and says “now I can climb like you, eh?” Alaphilippe laughs and kicks away. Apparently not.

Perhaps that’s the magic of ebikes – turning eight battle-hardened pros into kids again.

At every traffic light, a couple of people sidle up to the maillot jaune to ask for a selfie, wish him luck and pat him on the back. He is, unfailingly, gracious and patient and seems an all-round sweetheart. He’s also pretty keen to figure out where his missing teammates are, so we pull over for a bit and wait for the other half of the team to catch up.

Finally, a Danish national champ and an Argentinian national champ pedal languidly around a distant corner. To coffee.

The Tarn flows gently beside a bar shaded by lush emerald foliage, and the winningest team in cycling pulls up, dismounts and settle into their seats at a long table by the riverbank. The cast includes Viviani the jester; Enric Mas, owner of the sport’s biggest smile; Richeze, with the long faded face of a matinee idol; Davide Bramati, the most Italian-sounding DS in the game. Bramati takes the order: six cappuccinos, six espressos, a couple of Cokes and Oranginas.

Kasper Asgreen doesn’t have much faith in the nervous teenage barista, and asks if he can jump behind the bar. He may be six-foot-something of royal blue Danish muscle, but he’s got a pretty good idea of what he’s doing, actually – forceful tamps, elegant swirls of the milk jug. After a couple of attempts at latte art, though, he pronounces that the milk’s a bit iffy. Bramati lays down the law – no milk.

OK, 12 espressos. Asgreen gets back to work.

A lazy ten minutes pass, and it’s time to get moving. There’s no media here besides me and my colleague Caley Fretz; no hangers on, besides two 12- or 13-year-old boys. As the team gets up to leave, they seize their moment, shyly approaching Alaphilippe for a photo. Bonne chance, Julian. Bon courage. He smiles gently, poses with them, and gets handed his Tarmac for the remainder of the ride.

Tomorrow the Tour rolls on. Things will get serious again, and there’ll be no motors on the bikes. But today, on that rest day ride out of Albi, kids ride with their heroes and those heroes become kids.

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