(Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Julian Alaphilippe has a weight off his shoulders

Julian Alaphilippe finished Worlds with a big yellow bucket hat, beers with some friends, and a philosophical outlook.

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For someone who’d just finished 51st in a bike race, Julian Alaphilippe was elated. Three minutes after Remco Evenepoel had crossed the finish line as the new world champion, Alaphilippe pierced the gaggle of photographers surrounding the young Belgian, grabbed him in a hearty embrace, and celebrated. 

For the last two years, since soloing along an Italian ridgeline to his first rainbow jersey and defending it in Belgium, Alaphilippe has been a worthy World Champion. In that time, he’s won six races – including a stage win and stint in yellow at the 2021 Tour – but there’s been more to this span of his life than just the results. He’s also celebrated prematurely, had horrible crashes, become a father, mourned a father, hit his 30s. Over the past couple of rainbow-banded years, Julian Alaphilippe has experienced life, not just bike racing. 

In the process, he seems to have turned the idea of what it is to be world champion over in his head, considered it from all angles, and then articulated that experience. That’s how we know that he knows that “the rainbow jersey weighs very heavily”;  that “the rainbow jersey makes people make mistakes”; that losing it could represent a kind of “liberation”. 

The Wollongong World Championships course, on paper, seemed a good match for Alaphilippe, but a dislocated shoulder at the Vuelta – on top of broken bones earlier in the season – hampered his lead-up. When he’s good he’s almost unbeatable, but on this day his legs weren’t there. Christophe Laporte, second behind Evenepoel, told reporters that Alaphilippe had “said quite quickly that he was okay, but not as good as usual. He didn’t want to risk making us work when he wasn’t sure … most of all, he wanted to help us.”

Alaphilippe and Wout van Aert tackle one of the many steep pinches around Wollongong. (Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

On Sunday, France took the fight to Belgium. Valentin Madouas, Benoît Cosnefroy and Quentin Pacher shredded the peloton with early attacks, before Romain Bardet snuck into the decisive break of the day. But from that group, there was no stopping Remco Evenepoel – even French coach Thomas Voeckler called it “inevitable”. The young Belgian got a little gap, turned it into a two minute one, and had the rainbow jersey on his shoulders about half an hour before he even finished the race. “It wasn’t just anyone in front,” Alaphilippe reflected later. “It is no coincidence that Remco won.”

As for Julian Alaphilippe, there was no self-flagellation. He celebrated with Evenepoel, celebrated with Belgian soigneurs moonlighting from QuickStep, celebrated with Laporte and the French team. In the 30 minutes after the race finished, Les Bleus gathered in the pits, dissecting the race with Bernard Hinault, happy faces all round. “We have no regrets … it’s a good second place [for Christophe Laporte],” Alaphilippe later told l’Equipe. “We had a great team, we had a good race, we created movement, we were where we needed to be.” 

Alaphilippe now enters the next phase of his career – one where he is a former world champion, rather than a reigning one. As has become his habit, that shift seems to have been intellectualised before it had even happened. “For me, it’s a mix of lots of emotions. I had taken the time to imagine myself without a rainbow jersey next week. It’s already rare to have been able to enjoy it for two years,” Alaphilippe said, “[but] there is a time for everything.” 

Alaphilippe post-race. Photo: Tim Webster

An hour after Remco had been anointed and the stage announcer’s voice had stopped echoing along the waterfront, Julian Alaphilippe rolled the wrong way up the course toward the French accommodation. He’d snagged himself a big yellow promotional bucket hat from somewhere, turned goofily up at the brim, and pulled up on the barriers outside the Specialized pop-up where his teammates Florian Senechal and Quentin Pacher were chatting with a friend.

Inside, photographers took pictures of another world champion’s Tarmac, and for a while, Alaphilippe went unnoticed. In the fading light Alaphilippe grabbed a beer, complimented the on-site barista, shook hands, and smiled a genuine smile.

He wasn’t world champion anymore, just Julian Alaphilippe – with a little less weight on his shoulders. 

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