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Julian Alaphilippe: the Tour de France people’s champion

29 Jul 2019

Words: Joe Robinson Photography: Presse Sports/Offside

As he stood on the podium, Julian Alaphilippe bit down on his bottom lip, scrunched his nose and pumped his fists above his head. Grasping a large red number one given to the race’s most aggressive rider, his smile straightened as the realisation of the last three weeks sunk in. Taking a breath, he smiled again, bouncing off the stage and back down to the fans below.

In Paris, Alaphilippe was afforded one more moment in the sun. One last chance to absorb the admiration of a public that he reminded about their love of cycling.

He deserved it because after three weeks of racing around France, Alaphilippe was not crowned the actual Tour de France champion but he was crowned the Tour de France people’s champion.

Egan Bernal won the Tour de France. Nothing can be taken away from his achievements of this 22-year-old. The third youngest ever to win the Tour, the youngest in the yellow jersey era. The first Colombian, the first South American.

His climbing performances in the Alps were phenomenal. He blew away the competition on the high-altitude slopes of the Galibier and then the Iseran. That’s what will go down in history, that’s what will be etched into the record books.

But Bernal will have to share the adoration of Tour champion with Alaphilippe as, after all, what he did over three weeks of this race is what reignited cycling’s love of the Tour.

For three weeks, Alaphilippe raced like a boxer, going 21 rounds with nothing to lose. His first punch coming on the slopes of the Cote de Mutigny, 12km from the Stage 3 finish line in Epernay. That was enough to take yellow.

He took a blow in the sixth, fighting and losing yellow on La Planche des Belles Filles only to bounce back off the ropes swinging into Sainte-Etienne, snatching yellow back.

His bigger, badder opponents thought they smelt blood on the Stage 13 time-trial around Pau. Most saw him losing time, some even thought it could be the end of the jersey.

But in cinematic, underdog fashion, Alaphilippe rode into Pau to deafening roars to extend his lead.

Then came the Tourmalet on the 14th, surely the high summit would be the knockout blow but, no, Alaphilippe came to fight. Adam Yates, dropped. Dan Martin, dropped. Nairo Quintana, dropped. Geraint Thomas, dropped.

By the summit, only Thibaut Pinot managed to get the better of Alaphilippe.

As the race entered its 18th round and three days in the Alps, rivals were beginning to get worried. Say if he doesn’t fade? Say if we cannot drop him? Cracks showed on the Galibier. As Bernal disappeared up the mountain, Alaphilippe began to fade.

It looked as if the dream was over. But like the prizefighter he is, Alaphilippe bounced off the ropes. Limiting his loses on the uphill, he salvaged them all back on the downhill, even having the audacity to catch the group of favourites and move immediately to the front of the pack, puffing out his chest, showing everyone he wasn’t done yet.

It was admirable but it showed us Alaphilippe was tired and just 24 hours later, he was being left behind, this time on the slopes of the Col de l’Iseran, the Tour’s highest summit.

Seconds shed as he took punch after punch. Alaphilippe’s guard had dropped and the likes of Bernal, Thomas and Kruiswijk smelt blood. Bad weather and landslides probably did Alaphilippe a favour, he was only ever losing more time on the way to Tignes.

Then by the penultimate day, the rider who had stood strong all Tour was seeing stars. As the pace increased, Alaphilippe showed weakness, human fragility, watching the chance of a podium slip from his fingers into Val Thorens.

The Tour de France is theatrical, it’s a circus but it’s not Hollywood. If it were, Alaphilippe would have ridden into the Parisian sunset dressed in yellow. In reality, the 27-year-old just about managed to hold on to fifth place.

But that doesn’t matter because Alaphilippe’s Tour was much more than just a fifth-place finish, two stage wins and 14 days in yellow - and that’s not to be sniffed at.

It was a performance that reminded a nation why they love cycling. France fell in love with the Tour again. Cycling fans fell in love with the Tour again.

Every climb that Alaphilippe tackled, he was met with a roar of belief and love. Urged to the top by everyone from roadside regulars to young girls on the shoulders of their fathers getting their first taste of the Tour.

Each day he adorned the front of the national press. French President Emmanual Macron even made the trip out to the Tourmalet to get a picture in the hope it could boost his approval ratings. Such was the spell Alaphilippe cast, even Team Ineos largely escaped their usual boos and criticism.

People are calling this the best Tour de France since 2011. Some are sure this is the best Tour de France since 1989 and LeMond vs Fignon.

They are saying this not because of the route - although that was good too - but because of the way a young Frenchman from the Centre-Val de Loire region took the race by the scruff of the neck.

For anybody wanting to get their young son or daughter into cycling, show them what Alaphilippe did over the past three weeks.

And not just the audacious racing with panache but also the graciousness of how he took and conceded yellow, wrapping his yellow jersey around a shivering child at the top of a mountain and greeting his fans with open arms despite having just lost the race lead.

Alaphilippe reminded us that the Tour de France is cycling’s most beautiful race. The marquee event of this incredible sport.

Three weeks ago, Alaphilippe was the world’s best one-day race. He was also one of the best stage hunters in the peloton and probably one of cycling’s most complete riders.

But now, the morning after the night before, Alaphilippe is probably the best road cyclist in the world with literally the world ahead of him, and he won’t let it go to his head.

His poster will likely decorate the walls of kids' rooms all over France now and he will have definitely inspired the next generation to dream that they can one day win the Tour, or at the very least, do what Julian did. Make a country dream again.