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Julian Alaphilippe could defend the Tour de France yellow much longer than expected

9 Jul 2019

Words: Joe Robinson

When Julian Alaphilippe rode away from the rest of the Tour de France on the steep Champagne hills just outside Epernay yesterday, he didn’t mean to ride himself into yellow.

After the race, the Frenchman told the press that he had simply raced the Cote de Mutigny ‘full gas’ in an attempt to put his rivals in the red zone, making the expected reduced sprint for the stage against the likes of Peter Sagan a little more even.

What transpired was the Deceuninck-Quickstep rider getting a gap, descending like a demon, holding off the chasing peloton and taking not only the stage win but also the first yellow jersey of his career.

As the 27-year-old sat down to give his post-stage thoughts, the realisation of what had happened began to sink in. Unable to express his emotions in words, he shed a tear. Fast forward to the podium, and again the bottom lip looked to be wobbling.

Alaphilippe taking the yellow jersey was a goal for him and his team, but not this way. They planned to go closer in the team time trial on Sunday but were outdone and so it was Alaphilippe who took the race by the scruff of the neck to put those plans into action.

He did it in a manner that caught the imagination of his home that he is currently racing around. L’Equipe led with Alaphilppe as today’s cover story with the simple headline ‘Champagne’.

Many are calling him the darling of French cycling, its new chosen son - if his results earlier this year had not already done so. The thing is, this Tour could now really be the making of Julian Alaphilippe.

It’s hard to say a man with Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and Fleche Wallonne already on his palmares for this year alone is not made, but the Tour is the Tour. It’s character-defining, especially if you’re French.

There’s a real chance that this swashbuckling, face-pulling pocket-rocket who was taught drums by his dad as a kid and won junior cyclocross races on a bike too big for him could wear the glistening gold of Tour yellow on his shoulders far deeper into this race than his bigger and badder rivals may want.

Realistically, Thursday will be the first testing ground. A summit finish on La Planche des Belle Filles, a punishing 7km at 9.7% with its 24% gradients in the closing stages.

But Alaphilippe can climb, especially on the steep stuff, and with a loyal team, it’s hard to see him losing 20 seconds on its slopes, especially if those around him are too fearful to go on the offensive.

Then after La Planche des Belle Filles, there’s not another true test for the best part of a week, not that would trouble someone of Alaphilippe’s calibre anyway.

Stage 12 may unseat him, with the ascents of Col de Peyresourde and Horquette d’Ancizan, but don’t be surprised if he survives that and then goes on to surprise us some more in the 27km time trial the day after.

The Tourmalet and the punishing third week in the Alps, which has been labelled the hardest ever, should be enough to bury Alaphilippe but you never know as stranger things have happened.

I mean, just remember this time eight years ago, as the 2011 Tour played out. Remember another French rider capturing yellow and refusing to let it go.

Battling up giant mountains like the Galibier, beating off the advances of Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, all Tour winners, to defend yellow for France far longer than he should have.

Thomas Voeckler went deeper into the 2011 Tour defending that race lead than he ever should have but with yellow on his back, he rode beyond his limits day after day until finally conceding on Stage 19, eventually finishing fourth overall.

The will of a nation, the power of yellow, fate and plenty of hard work helped Voeckler produce heroics back then.

Voeckler was a good rider, but Alaphilippe is better. If he can galvanise that home support, muster the strength of yellow and have fate on his side, then there’s no doubt we could see a repeat of those historic scenes from almost a decade ago.