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July 17th, 2016 – A strange thing happened to Julian Alaphilippe in the time trial to La Caverne du Pont d’Arc. He crashed. And he crashed heavily. Only in his third year as a professional, Alaphilippe immediately impressed the pro peloton with his descending skills, capable of taking three bike lengths out of just about any rider in a tight mountain turn—save perhaps Vincenzo Nibali and Peter Sagan.
Words & images: James Startt – European Associate to peloton
From: Culoz, France
That’s how well Alaphilippe descends. And the fact that he crashed so heavily just after cresting the Col de Serre de Tourre is perhaps a sign of the fatigue that this Tour de France neophyte is feeling. “A strong gust of wind just picked me up and threw me out like a crêpe! I am still wondering how I managed to avoid planting my head in the rock,” Alaphilippe told the French sports daily L’Equipe after the crash.
And although his shoulder and back are full of burns and bruises, he managed to climb back on his bike and soldier on. But he paid the price, as he struggled through stage 14, a largely flat stage that saw British sprinter Mark Cavendish grab his fourth victory of this year’s Tour. Finishing over two and a half minutes down on the day’s winner.
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“Man I really felt the crash today. My back, my shoulder, were killing me. And now the fatigue of the Tour is really setting in,” Alaphilippe told Peloton at the line in Villars-les-Doubs. “You know, I’ve never raced more than eight days. And now I’m heading into my third week here on the Tour. I’m just pretty empty.”
One such eight-day race would most certainly be the Tour of California, where Alaphilippe finished second in 2015, before winning it this year. It is just one of many pro races where he has left his mark in the three years since turning pro. Others include legendary classics like the Fleche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he has finished second on numerous occasions.
“He is a pure cyclist,” says his Etixx-Quickstep sports director Davide Bramati. “He’s just got a nose for racing!”
Ironically, Alaphilippe thought he would follow in the footsteps of his father who was a musician in the French music hall circuit. But while he still plays drums, he didn’t have the patience for reading music. Instead he turned to sports, falling in love with the playful side of cyclocross, something which explains his ability for descending even today.
Although the French press is ever hungry to compare him to top French professionals like Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot, Alaphilippe is only 24 and sees himself much more as a puncher than a pure climber.
It was his punch that nearly won him the yellow jersey on stage 2, when he finished just behind Peter Sagan. And although he took over the white jersey distinguishing the best young rider, he knew he would have trouble defending it in the high mountains.
Over and hour behind race leader Chris Froome, Alaphilippe once again went on the attack on stage 15, a mountain -riddled stage to Culoz. After all, what better way to bury the accumulated aches and pains of the Tour?
Even though he made the day’s breakaway, bad luck once again struck on a descent. Bombing down the impressive Col du Grand Colombier, his race was seriously compromised when his chain got stuck. “I stopped but there was nothing I could do. There was no way I could get it out. I just had to wait for a new bike.” And although he again managed to close in on the race leaders before the second ascent of the climb, he insists that his race was essentially over.
“I’m really disappointed not to be able to contest the final. I’m not saying I would have won, but the final would have been good for me,” Alaphilippe said, speaking of the long descent into Culoz.
With one more week remaining, Alaphilippe will of course look for more opportunities as the race ventures into the Alps. But he is also simply focused on finishing. “You have to push past your limits every day in the Tour,” Alaphilippe says. “I’m learning something every day. But when you finish the Tour you are another person.”
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