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Race Tactics: Alaphilippe Monumental Mistake

By Nick Bull

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Some rainbow jersey curse, right? A week into his reign as the world champion, Julian Alaphilippe endured a torrid day at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday, as a mix of misfortune and his own impatience cost him his second Monument victory. And yet, quite incredibly given how the previous 256.8 kilometers had played out, 100 meters from the finish line on the Quai des Ardennes, the Deceuninck—Quick-Step rider looked set to win his first race in the stripes. In 50 years’ time we’ll have to somehow explain to cycling novices that the person with his arms aloft in all the photographers’ finish line pictures actually placed second and was eventually classified fifth in the results. Good luck with that.

By Nick Bull

For somebody who won the world title seven days ago on a 258.2-kilometer course and has made light of Milan Sanremo’s fearsome distance, Alaphilippe seemed unwilling to play the waiting game in La Doyenne. Too often he looked like a first-timer, making questionable tactical decisions and being provoked into life too easily. It is somewhat fitting that, after an engrossing finale that mixed the protagonists of other recent, absorbing Sunday showdowns (the Nice, Laruns and Grand Colombier Tour de France stage finishes; the world championships), an actual Liège rookie – Primož Roglič – rode astutely to win his first Monument.

81.6KM TO GO

Although Marc Hirschi (Team Sunweb) was also caught up in it, Alaphilippe appeared to be distracted long after a crash on the approach to the Côte de Stockeu. In the following 15 kilometers he had two bike changes, spent time fiddling with his right shoe and had the air of somebody who really did not want to be spending his Sunday riding around industrial parts of Belgium.

35.6KM TO GO

CCC’s Michal Schär – the last breakaway rider standing – is caught on the lower part of the Côte de la Redoute, effectively triggering the start of the race proper. After a short discussion between them, Alaphilippe’s teammate Dries Devenyns sets a good tempo over the top of the climb. However, it is not a pace that puts any of the pre-race favorites in difficulty, even after 220 kilometers of racing. Mathieu van der Poel, fresh (or not) from his solo heroics in Saturday’s BinckBank Tour finale in northern Belgium, notably looks comfortable on the climb. The Alpecin-Fenix rider sits a few wheels behind Roglič in the above still.

From here until the finish line, it’s striking how visible Alaphilippe is at the head of the peloton. One-day races are known for challenging riders to find the right positional balance between getting caught out for sitting back versus being too near the front for too long. Given how much Alaphilippe puts his nose in the wind en route to Liège, he may well look back and regret not riding this race a little more like the eventual winner.

27.2KM TO GO

As the front group approaches the Côte des Forges, the positioning of the eventual top five finishers is again striking. Roglič (circled) sits around the middle of the reduced peloton (38th out of 58 riders), with Bahrain-McLaren’s Matej Mohorič even further back. Meanwhile, Alaphilippe is third in line, between teammates Dries Devenyns and Mauri Vansevenant. Hirschi and Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) shadow the Frenchman.

If the maillot jaune in the Tour is said to give riders extra strength and determination, the rainbow jersey appears to have triggered Alaphilippe’s look-at-me gene. His strangest tactical move of the day came over the top of the Forges when he responded to an ambitious attack by Astana’s Luis León Sánchez. To say it was strange to see him drawn out a little over 23 kilometers from the finish, with the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons remaining, by a move from somebody increasingly affected by father time (Sanchez turns 37 next month) is an understatement. Hirschi doesn’t escape criticism here, either: he helped pull the peloton back to the short-lived breakaway. Jumbo-Visma, Trek-Segafredo, UAE and CC and, er, Sunweb (in the form of Tiesj Benoot) all had more than one rider in the group at this point.

Tom Dumoulin, a rider whose conversion into a domestique de luxe was completed three or so weeks ago, showed Hirschi how it’s done: when Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Alessandro De Marchi (CCC) tried to counter the Sanchez/Alaphilippe move, the Dutchman marked it on behalf of his team leader while Roglič watched on.

14.3KM TO GO

Dumoulin comes to the front of the peloton again 1.1 kilometers from the top of the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons. The Dutchman’s two-minute turn isn’t quite as damaging as his efforts on the Peyresourde at the start of September, but it’s the perfect softener for the much-anticipated Alaphilippe attack that comes 500 meters later. Michal Kwiatkowski shows his first sign of weakness when he lets the wheel go. Hirschi looks excellent as he bridges the gap. Roglič makes it across to the two leaders over the top of the climb, while Pogačar only joins the breakaway after some rapid descending.

Van der Poel, likely the rider most feared today because of his sprint speed, never looked like making the selection. Spare a thought for EF Pro Cycling’s Michael Woods: the Canadian rider hovers just behind the breakaway for a short while but never gets across. He finishes seventh, only beaten by van der Poel in the chase group sprint.

10.9KM TO GO

Hirschi attacks on an uncategorized drag (known locally as Côte de Boncelles), a move that ultimately only ended Kwiatkowski’s hopes. Alaphilippe followed it almost immediately. Initially slow to respond, Roglič and Pogačar take 500 meters to bridge the gap, seemingly a skill transferable from their day job as grand tour contenders. it’s the only time that the breakaway group comes close to splitting before the line.

9.3KM TO GO

It was on the two-lane N63 highway through Boncelles – quite possibly the ugliest road to grace any of the Monuments – that Grace Brown time trialled herself to within touching distance of eventual winner Lizzie Deignan during Sunday’s women’s race. If the 12-man chase group was to have any chance of drawing themselves back into contention, it would have been here. Imagine the post-race interview now: “What was the key part of the race today, Mathieu?” “Probably the 300 meters between the Pizza Hut and Quick burger joint!”

Long, straight stretches of road like this can often prove the downfall of breakaways, especially if they stop working together. Unfortunately for van der Poel et al., the four leaders did just enough here: their gap only shrunk from 19 seconds to nine. But with so much of the onus to chase on van der Poel, not to mention the two passengers (Dumoulin and Hirschi’s teammate Tiesj Benoot) among them, it was as close as they got.

100M TO GO

Going into the final kilometer, Hirschi looked the smart bet for the win. He didn’t shirk his turns, but he didn’t exactly drive the group to the line in the closing stages. In the five kilometers that preceded the passing of the flamme rouge, the television pictures showed the Swiss at the head of the quartet for around 30 seconds (out of approximately five minutes of racing). His longest turn was on the fast descent upon which Jakob Fuglsang almost lost last year’s race, which makes calling it a turn a little dubious.

Hirschi’s positioning with the line in sight looked to be perfect: he was immediately behind Alaphilippe with 350 meters remaining. The Frenchman took the bait yet again when the charging Mohoric, who was presumably fearless on the descent into Liège, somehow caught and went straight over the top of the four leaders on the finishing straight. For this acceleration Alaphilippe cannot be criticized; the Bahrain rider was on the rampage and only paid the price for his efforts 150 meters from the line. Imagine losing a race in this manner, Julian. How embarrassing would that have been?

The world champion’s sprint was surely too long – he kicked with 200 meters to go after six hours and 32 minutes of racing. Hirschi and Pogačar were clearly gaining on him when he inexplicably veered to his left, which made the Sunweb rider unclip his left foot and forced the Tour de France champion into taking evasive action. It’s a move that screams disqualification. Imagine losing a race in this manner…

Then came the mugging. Even after repeated viewings, Alaphilippe’s decision to sit up as far from the line as he did, having not looked around once inside the final 100 meters, is as comical as it is heart-breaking. Roglič deserves some credit here, too; he kicked again as soon as the Frenchman began celebrating. The rainbow stripes on Alaphilippe’s jersey quickly turned into a red face for the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider. Second place for the world champion became fifth by the time that the podium ceremony started, although he sensibly took “full responsibility” for the dangerous sprint.

Still, in the space of the Boels Rental logo printed on the finish line, Primož Roglič went from being this year’s Tour runner-up to an unforgettable Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner. Julian Alaphilippe will be hoping that any curse of his rainbow jersey is just as easy to shake off.

To read more long-form features, visit lacourseentete.com