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Can First-Timer Alaphilippe Win the Ronde?

By John Wilcockson | Images by James Startt and Sigfrid Eggers

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Anyone who has raced or witnessed the Ronde van Vlaanderen knows that it’s one of the toughest monuments to win. Some of the most accomplished classics riders in the sport’s history, including Freddy Maertens, Sean Kelly and Paolo Bettini, started it year after year but never won it. And virtually no rider has won Flanders on his first participation; one of the very few in postwar history was Englishman Tom Simpson in 1961. Dutch phenom Mathieu van der Poel came close last year, taking fourth place—and this Sunday, in the 104th edition of the Tour of Flanders—Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe is attempting to duplicate Simpson’s feat.

By John Wilcockson | Images by James Startt and Sigfrid Eggers

Simpson was in only his second pro season when he shocked the cycling world at the ’61 Flanders by breaking clear from a small lead group and taking a two-up sprint from the champion of Italy, Nino Defilippis. The Englishman was already well known for his aggressive racing style, not being intimidated by the big names and being hungry for success. That’s not unlike Alaphilippe, who also shocked the establishment in his second pro season, 2015, when he placed second to Alejandro Valverde in the two Ardennes classics, Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège.

Three weeks after that breakthrough in Liège, the then 22-year-old Frenchman scored his first major pro victory on the summit of Mount Baldy at the Tour of California. By good fortune I’d arranged with his Quick Step team manager Brian Holm before the stage to interview Alaphilippe that evening. One of the many questions I asked him was about a comment Holm had made to me earlier, that Alaphilippe could one day be a contender at the Tour of Flanders. Alaphilippe’s reply (in French) was: “A-ha. Perhaps, but that’s not something I’ve thought about….”

Image: James Startt

I then mentioned to Alaphilippe that his strong background in cyclocross—only losing the 2010 world junior title by a wheel—could come in handy at the Ronde. He replied: “Yes. I adore cyclo-cross…. It’s a discipline I really like and gives me a lot of pleasure. The Tour of Flanders may not be cyclocross but it’s very hard physically and you need a lot of the skills needed for ’cross: the technique, always being well placed, a good bike handler…and strength and agility on the bike that can save you lots of energy. The Tour of Flanders is sure to be a race I do, but it’s not one I’ve really thought about yet.”

In the five seasons since speaking those words, Alaphilippe has developed into not only the world’s most exciting rider (and now the world champion) but also one who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Because of his early success in the Ardennes he was expected to focus on hilly classics. Instead, he has tackled stage races all over the planet, along with the most challenging one-day races and grand tours. He won so many races in 2019 that he spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the world; he was voted by an international jury of journalists as winner of the prestigious Vélo d’Or; and he was named France’s Champion of Champions by sports daily L’Équipe—the first male cyclist to be so recognized in 25 years.

Alaphilippe’s popularity is such that the French fans have adopted him as “Loulou” just as they affectionately named their recently departed icon, Raymond Poulidor, “Poupou.” Commenting on Alaphilippe after his sensational 2019 season, highlighted by a Tour de France in which he wore the yellow jersey for two weeks, won two stages (including the only individual time trial) and ended up in fifth overall, the dean of French cycling journalism, Philippe Brunel, wrote: “He’s not the same as before. Something has changed. His image. His reputation. His status. And the toughest will be to get back on course, to remain himself, a one-off, a wild crusader, sincere, poetic, who races without calculating, borne by a lyrical illusion, a d’Artagnan of fortune…outspoken, a straight talker, who tries to—enjoys to—give ‘pleasure to the people.’”

Just like Simpson and Poulidor before him, Alaphilippe comes from a working-class background, growing up in a project in central France. “I was brought up to share things,” he said. “My parents never put me on a pedestal…and if I have children, I’ll impress that on them, I won’t spoon-feed them.” That “sharing” concept continued into his late teens. At ’cross races, he shared a second-hand bike with his younger brother Bryan, who would fix the bike after his race before Julian put the saddle up a few centimeters—and then usually won his race.

“I left school early,” said Alaphilippe, who worked as an apprentice mechanic at a bike shop in Montluçon, a town of 38,000, before starting his two-year military service. “Before I joined the army,” he added, “I didn’t have anything, really, really nothing…. And I didn’t know anything about racing. I liked to take off a long way out, ride fast and go my hardest.”

Because of his good ’cross results, Alaphilippe was assigned to the French Army’s amateur cycling team, where he was paid about $20,000 a year. “I learned a lot about cycling with the Armée de Terre team,” he said. Indeed, he won the national under-23 ’cross title two years running and did well enough in domestic road racing to get selected to the national U23 team to race in Canada’s Nations Cup race in Saguenay, where he won the hilliest stage and placed second overall. That performance, along with some solid rides in France, were enough to earn him a place on Quick Step’s development team in 2013.

That was the first step to his signing pro with Belgium’s top team, a move that he said was due to his cousin, a former pro rider, Franck Alaphilippe—who has been Julian’s trainer since his junior days. “Franck’s very important for me. Someone I respect a lot,” Alaphilippe told me. “He’s very straightforward and kind, with great skill. It’s because of him that I am getting to know myself more and more…and it’s thanks to him that I’m on a WorldTour team.” Indeed, his cousin has guided Alaphilippe so skillfully through his entire career that he was appointed the Deceuninck-Quick Step team’s head coach earlier this year.

With cousin and trainer Franck Alaphilippe. Image: James Startt

Franck Alaphilippe said this about his young cousin: “He’s a boy full of the joy of life, full of strength. You can see that in his results. He is in life like he is in the races.” When interviewed by Sporza last July, the coach was already talking about his client’s 2020 plans. “He wants to start as soon as possible in the Tour of Flanders. I don’t know if he can win it, but it is a race he wants. And if Julian wants to start a race, he also wants to win that race.”

Wanting to win a race like Flanders first time out is a goal that few current riders could share. But Alaphilippe has shown in the past that he can come very close to achieving (or even achieve) such goals. Taking second place in the Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in his first tilt at the Ardennes classics five years ago gave him an insight into his capabilities. He knew that he had to train hard for those two races—with tough sessions of motor-pacing behind his coach— but his designated role was to ride for his then team leader Michal Kwiatkowski. So, when, just a couple of kilometers before the finish of the 2015 Flèche, his team director gave him the go-ahead to ride for the win, Alaphilippe showed he could take the pressure by almost beating defending champion Valverde.

Edged out by Alejandro Valverde at the 2015 edition of Flèche Wallonne. Image: James Startt

The Frenchman would finish runner-up a second time at the Flèche, but thanks to his constant evolution he won that Belgian classic in 2018 and 2019. Talking about the Flèche, he said, “On my two second places, the difference that separated me from the victory was minimal and enormous at the same time. It wasn’t certain that I would automatically win it, as no one knew what would happen. It was my self-belief that enabled me to break through.”

What’s clear about Alaphilippe is that he excels when an exciting challenge comes along—even when he doesn’t know a lot about the challenge. When he discussed his 2017 debut at Milan–San Remo with Vélo Magazine, he said: “I’d heard talk of this classic when I turned pro, but I didn’t really find out about it until three days before riding it, when I was race leader of Paris–Nice, My directeur sportif, Tom Steels, came to see me in my room after a stage and told me that I would be at the start. It was the team that made me understand the importance of this event as, besides its long distance, I didn’t know much about it.”

What’s remarkable about this anecdote is that with only a couple of days to gather his thoughts on riding the longest classic for the very first time, Alaphilippe chased down a blistering attack by race favorite Peter Sagan on the Poggio climb, with Kwiatkowski on his wheel, and though he “only” took third in their furious three-man sprint, the Frenchman showed that being a first-timer needn’t be a handicap.

He reinforced that theory last year at Italy’s “white roads” classic, Strade Bianche. “I was favorite for a race that I didn’t even know,” Alaphilippe said. “I adore this sort of challenge.” And, yes, he rose to the challenge, attacking on one of the course’s steepest hills with Jakob Fuglsang and expertly dispensing with the Dane in the tricky finale. Then, the following week, he won two stages of Tirreno–Adriatico, which he said were made possible by the extra power he’d gained from his winter training.

“It’s allowed me to use a bigger gear in the sprints,” he said. This proved decisive in the second of his Tirreno stage wins when he outkicked some of the world’s top sprinters in a 60-man dash. The confidence from that win, along with his uphill expertise on the Poggio, led to his stunning Milan–San Remo victory in a 12-man sprint a few days later. Being better prepared mentally was also a factor in his 2019 successes. “I’m calmer on the bike than before,” Alaphilippe said. “If I’d remained the rider I was when I started, all fired up, I would have wasted efforts foolishly and wouldn’t have won so many races…. I’ve learned how to stay calm, to make efforts at the right time.”

After winning the 2019 Vélo d’Or award as the world’s best rider, Alaphilippe said, “I’ve had an exceptional season but I’m not going to rest on my laurels. I start again from zero [in 2020] and plan to be where I’m not expected…like with Strade Bianche. The Tour of Flanders intrigues me because it’s one of the most beautiful races, for its history, its prestige, the ambiance, the way in which it is raced…. It’s really something I want to do, so why wait?”

Victory in this weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen remains a long shot for Alaphilippe. History is not on his side. Besides the dearth of first-time winners in Flanders, this cobbled classic has been won by only three Frenchmen: Louison Bobet in 1955, Jean Forestier in ’56 and Jackie Durand in ’92. Then there is the course itself, easily the most intricate of any classic. After an initial run-in of 84 kilometers from the start in Antwerp, the remaining 160 kilometers resembles a plate of spaghetti, with constant twists and turns to climb 17 steep hills (most of them cobbled) and cross five long stretches of cobblestones.

Talking about the difficulties of negotiating the Ronde, German expert Rolf Aldag—a veteran of 15 racing seasons (including top 10s in Flanders) and 15 more as a directeur sportif—once told me: “It took me a really long time to understand this race. We had Belgian team directors but if you don’t have the spirit in the team to understand the race and know what to do as a team, then you just have no chance. When we started to see the racecourse before the Tour of Flanders, you got a feeling for the distances from one climb to the next, where you can jump on a side path for instance, things like that. You just can’t figure that out in the race. You have to know in advance.”

Training camp 2020. Image: Sigfrid Eggers

Three-time Flanders winner Tom Boonen was even more explicit: “The Tour of Flanders is the hardest to ride, and the hardest to win. It never lies. It’s physically harder because it’s more demanding mentally; you have to stay totally focused over the final 150 kilometers, and you can’t make a mistake. You pay dearly for the slightest error.”

He may be a first-timer but Alaphilippe has raced on several of these Flemish roads in his pro career. On the last stage of the 2015 Eneco Tour he climbed the infamous Kappelmuur at Geraardsbergen, finishing fifth on the day, outsprinted by local hero Greg Van Avermaet after working for his Quick Step teammate Yves Lampaert, who was in the break.

Another factor in Alaphilippe’s favor is his current Deceuninck-Quick Step team, which besides the always-strong-in-the-classics Belgians Lampaert and Tim Declercq, also includes powerful Dane Kasper Asgreen (second in last year’s Flanders), French strongman Florian Sénéchal (second in last Sunday’s Ghent–Wevelgem), former world ’cross champion, the Czech Zdenek Stybar, and Luxembourg friend Bob Jungels (who Alaphilippe helped win the 2018 Liège–Bastogne–Liège).

Right now, Alaphilippe is on a roll since using last month’s Tour de France as preparation for his end-of-season program. First, he scored his most prestigious career victory at the Imola worlds; and his two appearances in the rainbow jersey he has crossed the line with his arms in the air both times—though he was relegated to fifth at Liège after illegally (and admittedly foolishly) changing line in the sprint, and then hung on to win the Flèche Brabançonne (a.k.a. Brabantse Pijl) ahead of Mathieu van der Poel.

Alaphilippe’s performance in that Belgian classic impressed teammate Sénéchal, who, when asked by L’Équipe if Alaphilippe has a chance of winning the Ronde, replied, “After seeing him fly up the cobbled climb just before the finish, the Moskesstraat, with an impressive van der Poel hanging on his wheel, I told myself that it’s possible. It’s up to us [on the team] to push the others to their limit on the climbs to give Julian the chance of going solo.”

As for the Ronde’s infamously tough and complicated course, Sénéchal said, “Julian is smart, he knows exactly how to work things out in a race. Already, in June, he did a course recon and asked questions about the strategic points; and this week he’s returning to those sectors. He’ll learn even more before the race on Sunday.”

Under general manager Patrick Lefevere, Alaphilippe’s Belgian squad has won seven of the past 15 editions of the Ronde. He would like nothing less than to take win No. 8 in 2020. When Peloton asked Lefevere whether Alaphilippe could be the team’s winner on his first appearance, he enigmatically replied, “Well, I don’t know, but I can tell you that we are not a test team. If you go to Flanders with us, you are not going there just to learn.” He then added that Alaphilippe won’t be expected to race the Ronde as a team helper…and that “the strongest legs always determine the outcome in the finale of Flanders.”

One of Lefevere’s former Flanders champions, Johan Museeuw, was even more explicit, saying this about Alaphilippe: “His role is to win. In the finale, with Jungels, Lampaert and Asgreen, Deceuninck-Quick Step has an advantage over its rivals. A champion always wants to win big races—and Alaphilippe is a champion.”