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Julian Alaphilippe, the most worthy of World Champions

28 Sep 2020

The rainbow jersey is Alaphilippe's reward for being the most consistently exciting rider in the world

Words: Joe Robinson Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Despite what we all thought, this weekend’s men’s World Championships road race was not Wout van Aert’s to lose. It turns out the rainbow jersey was always Julian Alaphilippe’s to win.

Van Aert has been the best road cyclist in the men’s professional peloton since racing’s return at the beginning of August. The young Belgian took Strade Bianche with ease before scooping up Milan-San Remo, ahead of Alaphilippe, the week later. Van Aert then assumed the role as humble domestique at the Criterium du Dauphine and Tour de France yet, despite sacrificing himself for others, still managed a Dauphine stage and a brace at the Tour.

Sandwiched with success in the Belgian National Championships time-trial, this amalgamation of results made it seem like Van Aert would be racing Imola as the only five-starred favourite. Warming up with second in the time-trial on Friday, the 25-year-old took to the road race with an air of invincibility around him and, for large parts of the race on Sunday, this continued on the road.

His team – including riders such as Greg van Avermaet, Tim Wellens and Tiesj Benoot who could have all considered their own chances on a day such as Sunday – were ever-present at the front, stifling the race to such an extent that barring a speculative attack by Tadej Pogacar with 40km to go, nobody dared attempt to roll the dice from distance.

Come the race’s final ascent of the Cima Gallisterna, it still looked like Van Aert’s to lose. The pace was high but he looked comfortable, marking moves by Marc Hirschi and Michal Kwiatkowski, knowing he could breeze all those around him in a sprint finish.

The only issue for Van Aert was that while he has been the best rider for the past two months, Alaphilippe has been the best men’s rider for the last 18 months.

Launching that blistering attack on the Cima Gallisterna, it suddenly all made so much sense. It was a trademark move from Alaphilippe, exploding into life on a 15% wall in the big ring. Something that, in today’s peloton, only he can do. It was an attack so great that nobody could follow him and nobody, including Van Aert, could catch him.

Regardless of how well the chasing group – composed of Van Aert, Hirschi, Kwiatkowski, Primoz Roglic and Jakob Fuglsang worked – Alaphilippe, who crossed the line in floods of tears, was always winning that race.

It was a just reward for the Frenchman who has realistically been the best male rider in the world since the end of 2018. Others can lay claim to that title, Roglic and Van Aert being two, but no rider has shown the versatility, ability and intent across all terrains to not just win but also to entertain.

Sure, Alaphilippe has not been the same beast in 2020 as he was in 2019. Last season, he had the Midas touch – similar to Van Aert this year – winning Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, Fleche Wallonne and electrifying an otherwise tepid (at times) Tour de France. This season, he has shown glimpses of that invincibility but with clear chinks in the armour.

Cyclist columnist and writer Richard Moore made an astute point. Alaphilippe’s victory has waves of Philip Gilbert’s rainbow success in 2012 about it. In 2011, Gilbert was untouchable, winning almost every race he entered. In 2012, he was not the same rider – he was beatable, but when it came to the one that mattered, the Worlds, he made it count.

Alaphilippe’s victory feels similar to that of Gilbert's 2012 win in Valkenburg.

Whoever wins the rainbow jersey is a worthy winner. From the surprise of Rui Costa to the predictable victory of Mark Cavendish, if you win the race, you earned it. But with Alaphilippe, you get a sense that he is a rider that will honour the jersey in a way few others have previously.

Two years ago, I sat down with Alaphilippe in a hotel room in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. He was just about to win the Tour of Britain following a week of constant back and forth with Primoz Roglic. Taking the race to the Slovenian, he had finished second on the summit finish stage of Whinlatter Pass, arguably throwing away the stage to Wout Poels with big attacks on the lower slope, but had done enough to drop Roglic for good and take the race overall. I questioned him on his tactics.

‘I ride with my heart. I will always prefer to lose everything trying to win than to not try and finish second,’ Alaphilippe told me, with a smile.

Rather than be weighed down by the jersey upon his shoulders, expect Alaphilippe to continue as he has done for the last few years. Riding on emotion and launching audacious attacks is the only way Alaphilippe seems to know how to ride and is, ultimately, how he will honour the jersey.

And the curse of the rainbow jersey? I’m not sure that will bother Alaphilippe. In fact, with Liege-Bastogne-Liege next weekend, who would be surprised if he won La Doyenne in his maiden ride as World Champion?