Julian Alaphilippe’s ride of love, loss, and longing

Last year, Julian Alaphilippe was a son mourning his dad. This year, he was a new dad, missing his son.

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On the climb to the finish in Landerneau, his leg inked by chainrings and bloodied from an earlier crash, Julian Alaphilippe pulled out of the slipstream of a teammate and took flight.

As is so often the case when the Frenchman goes, there was a certain inevitability to it. Deceuninck-QuickStep had spelled it out, in words and in action, massing at the front of the peloton as it flew round the left-hander at 3 km to go. The pressure increased like an ocean pulling out for a wave. The race stretched out into a long line. 

And then, Alaphilippe was gone. 

Alaphilippe in flight on the way to the first yellow jersey of the 2021 Tour de France.

The last time Julian Alaphilippe won at the Tour de France, at the opposite end of the country on the sun-drenched roads of Nice, he was racing with a broken heart. His father – a musician, like his son – had just died after a long illness. Alaphilippe had promised himself that he’d win for his dad, and again, there was a kind of inevitability to the outcome. 

And there the French star sat in the gutter in Nice, his head in his hands, the emotion pouring out of him like the wave crashing to shore. “This is for you Dad,” he tweeted that night. “I miss you so much.”

Alaphilippe after his emotional win at the 2020 Tour de France, almost a year ago.

A lot can change in a year, although the ache of a loved one’s loss never really goes. Today at the Tour, Alaphilippe won again, wearing rainbows, not blue and white. And as he crossed the line he was riding for family, but embodying a generational shift.

Last year, he was a son mourning his dad. This year, he was a new dad, missing his son. 

Less than two weeks ago, Alaphilippe and his partner, former French pro and TV commentator Marion Rousse, welcomed their first child Nino into the world. Alaphilippe had left the Tour de Suisse early to be present for the birth, and withdrew from an Olympics with a course that suited him to spend time at home.

“I love you so much,” he wrote about his son on Instagram, beside a black and white picture of his hand and Marion’s hand, and Nino’s tiny, perfect wrinkled hand.

When you’re Julian Alaphilippe and the Tour de France is on, though, there are things expected of you – attendance the very least of them. By the time Alaphilippe returns from the Tour, he will have been away for more of Nino’s life than he’s been there for. 

You can feel the weight of that in his celebration, his outpouring of emotion in Landerneau.

The ache of last year and this year coexists in Julian the son and Julian the father, an unplaceable feeling that the English language lacks a word for but what the Portuguese call “saudade“.  

As Julian Alaphilippe closed in on the finish line yesterday, he raised his thumb to his mouth, suckling it briefly as a tribute to Nino.

And then he rode over the line to another yellow jersey and another impossible weight of home-crowd expectation, both present and a million miles away.

He was Julian Alaphilippe, one of cycling’s greatest superstars, doing what his team and his country needs of him in this moment. There was a script to follow; he knows his lines after all these years, and he executed another flawless performance.

But he was also just a father missing his son and a son missing his father, a personified ouroboros of love and loss and longing. 

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