It’s a testament to Julian Alaphilippe’s character that he can appear so calm and composed despite the past few weeks he’s had.
His father, Jacques, passed away after a long illness at the end of June, while his return to racing at Strade Bianche was beset by a series of unfortunate punctures.
Of course, racing misfortune pales in comparison to losing immediate family members and the events that followed the first WorldTour stage race back on Wednesday, when team-mate Fabio Jakobsen was involved in an awful crash at the Tour of Poland.
Speaking less than 24 hours after Jakobsen was taken to hospital in a serious condition, now having awoken from his induced coma, Alaphilippe spoke of the nervous wait for news of his team-mate, as well as the extra motivation it will give him and Deceuninck – Quick-Step to retain the Milan – San Remo title on Saturday.
Between the measuredness in his response to questions about race safety and the underlying grit to exact some sort of revenge for the cards fate has dealt him recently, there is a serenity to Alaphilippe.
The 28-year-old has already made his mark on the sport, won more than most riders could ever dream of, and seems to be taken at least some vicarious pleasure in his rivals realising their own dreams.
“It’s incredible when you’re able to win Lombardy, Paris-Roubaix, when they are really different, that’s really special,” Alaphillipe said of his former team-mate Philippe Gilbert, who will be vying for his fifth different Monument victory on Saturday. “I wish him good luck and hope he can make it.
“Philippe is also a rider who can attack so we will see,” the Frenchman added, re-iterating Arnaud Démare’s words that the current wealth of punchy talent in the bunch means the sprint finishes that saw the two Frenchman take their victories is becoming less likely.
As for the change of parcours, organisers taking the race inland after the route’s usual local authorities refused the peloton passage due to coronavirus fears.
“I just know there is some change with a climb but it’s really far from the finish so we will have a meeting tonight and voila,” Alaphilippe said nonchalantly. “We will learn more then, the sport directors did a recon so we will have more info.”
Really, the defending champion just seems happy to be back racing. Bradley Wiggins suggested energetic riders such as the Frenchman will have struggled more in lockdown than the likes of Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome who can just dial themselves into solo training.
“No, I don’t have to find an excuse, the heat was experienced by everybody. I had some bad luck with punctures but I felt good and was happy to start,” Alaphilippe said of his performance at Strade Bianche.” I was happy with my condition and to be in the bunch again, it was also a nice feeling to have number one on my back and at the end I was proud to finish as it was a really hard race.
“I’m not surprised with my condition, I feel better and better and it’s a good sign for the next week.”
Alaphilippe backs the winner in Siena, Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert, to be in with a very good chance of doubling his August win tally and take his first-ever Monument, saying the Belgian deserved the victory after the difficult past 12 months he’s had.
“It was a really beautiful victory for him, chapeau, I was happy for him, he deserved it after his bad crash last season and two-time podium [at previous editions of Strade Bianche],” Alaphilippe said.
“And for sure he’s got a good chance at San-Remo. At Milano – Torino he had a really strong sprint. He can win San Remo.”
Finally, the Frenchman says Quick-Step will adapt for the challenge of racing with six riders, something Philippe Gilbert has previously criticised as organisers squeeze 27 teams onto the start line, and the goal, as always, will be for the most winningest team to win once more.
“We have a really strong team, we will be around Sam [Bennett] for the sprint but you never know with San Remo. We have a really strong team and we will see what happens. Our goal is to win again.”