The last time Julian Alaphilippe held court with the media in person, without Covid restrictions or via a webcam, was in January last year – a lifetime ago.
He was buoyant, chatting about the collection of toy lions from the Tour de France he’d picked up and distributed amongst colleagues and friends, providing self-deprecating replies to questions probing whether he truly believed he could have taken the yellow jersey to Paris that year. Alaphilippe’s 2019 was a season that most riders could hardly dream of, and the Deceuninck – Quick-Step man was pretty sure it would be impossible for 2020 to be better.
While we can assume he wasn’t foreseeing the coronavirus pandemic (surely his talents don’t extend to soothsaying) he hardly had a bad year, emerging as the first Frenchman to take the rainbow bands in more than 20 years.
2020 may not stack up to 2019 in terms of a standalone vintage, but you can hardly complain at having more, good wine. And Alaphilippe’s cup is close to overflowing in that department, having kicked on in 2021, overcoming Primož Roglič to take Flèche Wallonne, wagging his finger across the finish line, saying he had proved to people he still retains the mental strength to compete in the big ones, signifying his disappointment that the only win he’d managed since the start of the year had been a stage Tirreno-Adriatico.
It is 14 months since that January debrief of 2019 and Alaphilippe is now sitting in another apathetic hotel room. He seems less merry, sober after a couple of years spent on an unstoppable rise to the top, now acclimatised to being a star.
It’s understandable, of course. If you think you hate Zoom calls imagine how taxing it is for a man who, while remaining faultlessly polite and thoughtful throughout, subtly gives the impression that sitting still for more than a couple of minutes amounts to a purgatorial act.
“Our final Ardennes video conference, I never thought we’d make it,” says the Deceuninck – Quick-Step press officer as the camera flicks on and the hotel room becomes a fishbowl.
The relief, at least for those on the outside looking in, is that Alaphilippe has not lost his hunger for racing, even if the demands external to riding continue to grow. The price of his success.
“The big goal has always been Liège-Bastogne-Liège, a race that is close to my heart,” Alaphilippe says, having missed out on competing in the final last year after colliding with a motorbike in the closing kilometres.
“After the Tour of Flanders I was tired,” he continued, having finished in 42nd place as team-mate Kasper Asgreen rode to victory. “I took a rest and then completed a good training block. I didn’t do any altitude training, but I did a lot of long training sessions with a lot of short slopes. Exactly as we can expect in Liège. After my victory in the Flèche Wallonne, I will start without stress, but I also want to show my rainbow jersey on Sunday.”
While the likes of UAE Team Emirates’ Tadej Pogačar and Marc Hirschi will hope to cause problems for the world champion, it is Jumbo-Visma’s Primož Roglič, runner-up at Flèche, who Alaphilippe marks as the rider he needs to watch closely.
“For me, he is now the man to beat, the big favorite,” Alaphilippe estimates. “He won last year and is now also very strong. His attack on the Mur de Huy was punishing and Roglič was also impressive in the Tour of the Basque Country. We should definitely keep an eye on him, although he’s not alone. In any case, I am happy with my fitness and I look forward to Sunday.
“It’s a good kind of pressure,” Alaphilippe added of the expectation he carries into every big race these days. “That pressure is there because when you set yourself big objectives, you always want to do well in them.”
With everything going well on the road, the turgid torture of press conference after press conference over for the time being, as well as the imminent arrival of his first child, a new contract will now see the 28-year-old remain with Deceuninck – Quick-Step into his thirties.
“It’s always good for the head to be more serene and not have to think about the transfer market,” Alaphilippe said of the new deal.
Patrick Lefevere has said team-mates gravitate towards him both as a leader and someone who does their bit for others, and this celestial pull extends past the peloton, a charmer who entertains both on and off the bike.
While on the road he may have collided with the younger generation effortless ascending the peloton, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert eclipsing him in the early season Italian races, it’s a mark of the Frenchman’s talent that despite not having a ‘van’ in his name everything still seems to be coming up Alaphilippe.