Julian Alaphilippe’s ride from grief to glory

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Julian Alaphilippe sat in a gutter in Nice and sobbed, his head in his hands. He’d just crossed the finish line in first place, following an attack everyone anticipated but no one could prevent, and pointed at the sky to his father. In the moments after his win, before the podium presentation, Alaphilippe’s ecstasy gave way to pure emotion. Like a wave breaking. Like a drought ending.

In a way, today’s win was both of those things. After a phenomenal season last year – which included a Milan-San Remo victory and a 14-day stint in yellow at the Tour, along with two stage wins – Alaphilippe entered 2020 saddled with expectation. His early season was largely anonymous, and when COVID-19 struck, warping the year around it like a black hole, the 28-year-old was winless.

In the five months that lay between Paris-Nice and Strade Bianche, Alaphilippe encountered joy and devastation. A long-rumoured relationship with French pro turned TV commentator, Marion Rousse, was revealed in April. In late June, Alaphilippe’s father Jo died after a lengthy illness.

Alaphilippe has built a reputation as one of the sport’s greatest showmen, but it was from Jo that he inherited some of that flair. His father, a former orchestra conductor, passed on a musical passion to his eldest son, who plays the drums. Despite having recently suffered a stroke, Jo travelled to see his son wear yellow in last year’s Tour.

Today, Alaphilippe wears yellow again.

It was a stage raced and won with familiar flair. Alaphilippe was widely tipped as a likely victor, and didn’t even bother playing his cards particularly close. On the climb of the Col du Quatre Chemins, in the hills above Nice, Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck-QuickStep squad moved into position. Bob Jungels was the last to pull off, and then, surprising absolutely nobody, Alaphilippe attacked with 13.3 km to go. Only Sunweb’s Marc Hirschi, and later Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), were able to follow.

The trio plunged back down to the coast, the glittering Mediterranean and the city of Nice laid out beneath them. On the hill out of the old port Alaphilippe reached down to tighten his shoes, once, twice. With the peloton closing behind, the Frenchman waited on the wheel of Yates and finally broke for the line. As he crossed the finish just ahead of Hirschi, Alaphilippe pumped his fist, looked upward, and let the emotion break forth.

“It’s always special to win on the Tour and it’s a strange year. I haven’t won a race since the start of the season,” a red-eyed Alaphilippe said in a post-race interview. “I just wanted to dedicate this victory to my dad. It was important to me.”

France, hit hard by coronavirus in the first wave and staring down a second, has considerable emotional investment in this year’s Tour. Yesterday on front pages in newsstands around the country, an anguished Thibaut Pinot lay on the ground after a late crash. Today, l’Equipe has Julian Alaphilippe in yellow, face half-shrouded, and the headline “Mask of gold”. Tomorrow, the op-eds about whether France’s darling can win the Tour de France will begin again. This season is nothing like last year, but there’s room for déjà vu in the Tour de France.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step entered the race with split ambitions, pursuing stage wins with Sam Bennett and opportunities for Alaphilippe. Now, they will try to hold onto the maillot jaune for as long as possible, as they did last year.

Alaphilippe conceded that he didn’t arrive at the race with aspirations for the overall, but “it’s something special to be in yellow at the Tour, so we will defend it.” There was just one major target going into the race, and that’s been achieved. “I promised myself I would win for him today,” Alaphilippe said.

Julian Alaphilippe dedicates the win to his dad.

In yellow, Alaphilippe is a beacon for the Tour de France and its followers. As the race continues its uncertain path around France, Alaphilippe returns to the spotlight, bearing a weight of expectation greater than his lean frame seems like it should be able to endure. He knows how to carry it. He’s done it before.

But some weights are greater than a nation’s hope, like the loss of a parent. “This is for you, Dad. I miss you so much,” Jo Alaphilippe’s boy tweeted on Sunday night, the emotion rolling in, like a wave breaking, like a drought ending.

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