The audacity of Julian Alaphilippe

Audaciousness is an asset, not a liability, in Julian Alaphilippe’s racing world. Can he apply that to the Tour?

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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.

Julian Alaphilippe rose over the penultimate pitch of La Planche des Belles Filles, through a cloud of churned dust and headlights, alone in the frame. Inside the slim gap between his arrival and that of Geraint Thomas lived a moment where anything seemed possible. Even Julian Alaphilippe winning the Tour de France.

Julian Alaphilippe will not win the Tour de France.

alaphilippe-thomas-planche-des-belles-filles stage 6

A classics man came to the Tour de France and raced it like he had nothing to lose. It’s why he wins. Audaciousness is an asset, not a liability, in Julian Alaphilippe’s racing world.

He set off too early on the road to Epernay two days ago, because, he said, “The legs didn’t feel too bad, so I went.” As simple as that. He needed 30 seconds, he got it, held it, and took the first French yellow jersey since Tony Gallopin. The word “panache” is overworked, its back broken in the fields of cycling literature, but since it is French and he is French, I can’t think of a better way to put it.

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

On the first real mountain stage of the Tour de France, his way was to sit with the best climbers in the world up one of the steepest climbs in this year’s race, and then attack them. Only Thomas and Thibaut Pinot could claw him back.

Audacious riders win big bike races. They win Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo and Flèche Wallonne. They don’t win the Tour de France. This has been pounded into us: The need for conservative riding, holding back, control. A strong team. The last two decades have been defined by a style of Tour de France winner who wins thanks as much to what he doesn’t do as what he does.

The racing is too close now. It’s too dialled. There are too many details, too many teams paying attention to too many details, so that if you aren’t paying attention to the details, you might as well not even try.

All riders say they’re taking the Tour day by day, yet Alaphilippe actually does. He has not, up until now, appeared to think of saving energy today so he can use it three days from now. Geraint Thomas certainly has.

Julian Alaphilippe could win the Tour de France.

Can you win the Tour without thinking about tomorrow, today?

Julian Alaphilippe will not win the Tour de France.

It is absolutely within reason to suggest that Alaphilippe could transform himself in the same way Dan Martin has done. From a master of the Ardennes to Grand Tour contender; puncheur to grimpeur. But he has to want it. And it’s not entirely clear that he does, or will.

If pro cyclists are all monks, living without certain joys in deference to a higher purpose, then the Tour contender is a special sort of devout; the sort that swears off speaking for a year, or will never wear shoes again in his life. He meditates, prays, yearns more than the others, more fervently, more desperately. The life of the Tour contender is given over to something else bigger than him. Is Alaphilippe ready for that?

He can climb with the best once. Does he have the patience to conserve, and then do it again? And again?

Alaphilippe will find out in the course of this Tour whether it might be worth it. He will know by the time we exit the Pyrenees, after a series of slopes much longer than those today. After the contenders have spent a week watching him as an equal, and not an imposter; after they follow him, and he tries to follow them. After the yellow jersey game he plays now gets all too serious, and there is pressure, real pressure, the sort of pressure specifically reserved for French hopes, which turns them to dust or diamonds and nothing in between.

Will Julian Alaphilippe win the Tour de France? I think he can.

He won’t.

But he could.

And wouldn’t that be fun.

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