You don’t win the Tour de France by accident. That was my confident assertion, made a week into the race, when a friend asked if I thought Julian Alaphilippe could win the whole thing. He had hung on to yellow, even been able to attack, on the excruciatingly steep slopes of the Planches des Belles Filles, but his lead over the other contenders was slender. Geraint Thomas had more than matched him.
The Frenchman had come to the race to target stages. That was what we’d been told at his team’s Brussels press conference on the eve of the race, and we had no reason to disbelieve the claim. His victory on the third stage in Épernay, on a parcours almost suspiciously suited to him, only confirmed it.
Conventional wisdom said he would enjoy a week or so in the jersey before slipping to an hour or so back once the really big climbs were upon us. Then he would be free to go on the hunt for additional solo wins. The polka dots would be back on his shoulders in no time.
Yet the collapse we all predicted never came. Not in the second week in the Pyrenees, nor the third in the Alps.
Although he did slip out of contention, first on the Col de l’Iseran and then on the long road up to Val Thorens, it was down a few floors, not all the way to the basement. Four minutes is nothing over a three week race. Plenty of riders who had committed far more to the task fared far worse.
There can be no other conclusion than Alaphilippe is perfectly capable of winning a Grand Tour. The question is, how much does he want to?
For although he would, doubtless, have loved to have ridden into Paris in yellow, you get the impression that if you’d asked him whether he’d rather have worn the maillot jaune for just the last two days, or the 14 in the middle, he would at least have had to pause before providing you with an answer.
(We would have asked him ourselves, but were too busy presenting George Bennett with a bunch of bananas instead.)
His abilities are such that it would take only a modest adjustment to his physical preparation to make up that petite deficit, but it would take a seismic shift in his mindset and mental approach to racing. Alaphilippe did his best to adjust to the responsibilities of leadership but never seemed comfortable with sitting tight and conserving energy.
Swashbucklers don’t do defensive or hide in the wheels. GC contenders, in contrast, often don’t even win stages. Not one of the three riders on the podium in Paris did.
Alaphilippe did make it onto the plinth, of course, as the recipient of the super combative prize. It gave the home crowd the opportunity to celebrate his achievements yet felt, even more than usual, like a consolation prize. Perhaps even a little condescending. This was nothing like his most attacking Tour, with last year’s assault on the maillot pois producing a far more aggressive, Alaphilippey performance from him.
But maybe that’s not the rider he wants to be anymore. In Grand Tours, anyway. We already knew he had all the talent in the world and could, on any individual day, win almost any race he wanted to.
The Tour de France revealed that the ceiling for his potential does not stop at shorter races. There may, in fact, not be any upper limit at all. Having tasted success of an entirely new kind, Julian Alaphilippe has arrived at a fork in the road. Is he going to take it?