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JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE MARCHES TO A DIFFERENT DRUMBEAT. Unless you’re a true aficionado of European cycling, you probably didn’t notice the name of Julian Alaphilippe until late-April of this year. Then, within the space of five days, he finished second to Alejandro Valverde at the last two spring classics: the short and punchy Flèche Wallonne and the long and hilly Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It normally takes years of experience to become a contender at those tough, tough races—in fact, five days before Liège, he told L’Équipe: “You need five, six years as a professional to be at the top” for a race that hard. But Alaphilippe, riding the Ardennes classics for the very first time, astonished even his team directors at Etixx-Quick Step by twice coming close to victory—at just 22 years of age!
Words: John Wilcockson
Images: Darrell Parks & Yuzuru Sunada
Opening image: Gunning it toward the Mt. Baldy finish. Image: Parks.
Alaphilippe greatly enhanced his growing reputation at the following Tour de Romandie, taking a couple of podium stage finishes in the Swiss race before the team decided he wouldn’t start the final weekend of racing. It proved a wise move in view of his starting the Amgen Tour of California a week later. There were no high expectations for the young Frenchman because this would be the longest stage race of his career—one day longer than the seven-day Tour de l’Avenir he did when he was an espoir two years ago. Now, American fans also know Alaphilippe’s name very well after he won the Tour of California’s iconic Mount Baldy stage to take over the yellow jersey—which he only lost when an inspired and belligerent Peter Sagan took a couple of final-day sprint time bonuses. Given the variety and quality of Alaphilippe’s 2015 performances, he would seem to be a natural to follow in the footsteps of the last three Frenchmen to be truly competitive in one-day classics and mountainous stage races: Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinault and Laurent Jalabert. That may be putting too much pressure on Alaphilippe, but this fall we will see how he copes with his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España, and, most likely, his first elite men’s world road championship (in Richmond, Virginia).
So where did this ultra-talented French rider come from? And is he going to be the leader of a new generation of French stars that already includes the slightly older Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil and Thibaut Pinot? Unlike the other three, who all began bike racing at age eight and graduated to the professional level through national-level amateur teams, Alaphilippe was a drummer in his dad’s dance band until he discovered cycling and joined a small-town club team, the US Florentaise, where his initial successes came in cyclo-cross, not road racing….
Peloton learned all this and much more about Alaphilippe’s unusual background and his rapid progress through the ranks—right up to his No. 1-ranked UCI WorldTour team—in an interview a few hours after he’d taken his dramatic stage win atop Mount Baldy.
After winning the most prestigious stage of “America’s Greatest Race” (as described by race owner AEG), most riders and teams would celebrate with a glass of champagne, or at least a sparkling wine. But Alaphilippe? Etixx-Quick Step? Well, no and no.
Dinner at the Ontario Airport Hotel in Southern California was low key in the extreme: a line of silver buffet bowls lined up in the center of a vast banquet hall surrounded by white-linen-covered round tables, two per team. The day’s winner ambled anonymously into the room, picked up a plate, helped himself to a large portion of pasta, with tomato sauce and vegetables, and then sat down with a couple of teammates also wearing team-issue loose-fitting gray tracksuits. They were drinking water.
About a quarter-hour later, their Danish directeur sportif Brian Holm came into the hotel from having his iPhone fixed at the local mall. He apologized for his tardiness, invited me to sit with him at the team’s second table and ordered two bottles of red wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon. He took one over to the other table and poured a glass for Alaphilippe. The young Frenchman smiled, rider and director clinked glasses, and both took celebratory sips. “No champagne?” I asked Holm. “No. That would be too showy here,” he replied, gesturing toward the riders and officials from the other 17 teams also having dinner.
That morning, before the peloton left the parking lot outside the nearby Citizens Business Bank Arena, Holm, in his signature quiet monotone, mentioned a few of Alaphilippe’s characteristics: “He’s a little like Sagan handling his bike, an ex-cyclocross rider, and he can descend great—much better than most road riders. Julian is very polite and modest. He’s not been affected by the money yet. I think he can win a lot of races, even the Tour of Flanders, besides those other races, the Flèche and Liège.”
Holm said he wasn’t sure how his starlet would do on Mount Baldy. But Alaphilippe is clearly more than just a classics specialist. At 5-foot-8 (1-meter-73) and 136.5 pounds (62 kilograms), Alaphilippe has a build that’s also suited to climbing. In the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir, the seventh and final stage finished on the Plateau des Gilières, a nasty climb in the Alps northeast of Annecy that has a 7.7-percent average grade for 9 kilometers, with a steepest pitch of 15 percent. Alaphilippe won that stage in a solo break, a minute ahead of Slovenian Matej Mohoric, the 2012 world junior road champion, and 1:39 ahead of British climber Adam Yates, who was chased home by a group that included Latvian Toms Skujins, Italian Davide Formolo and Spaniard Rubén Fernández—the Avenir’s overall winner. Two years later, all of those men are on WorldTour teams except Skujins—who races for the Hincapie Racing development team and caused a minor sensation earlier in this year’s Tour of California by winning the hilly San Jose stage and defending the yellow jersey for two more stages.
Discussing Alaphilippe over dinner, Holm admitted, “I was surprised that he won today. I didn’t think he could climb like that.” The Etixx team director didn’t add to that statement, but it was clear that he believes the Belgian team’s French protégé can continue surprising his bosses.
It’s always exciting to meet a young pro such as Alaphilippe making a breakthrough—and even more exciting when this particular rider has the makings of a Tour de France winner, perhaps the first Frenchman with those qualities since Hinault took his fifth Tour win 30 years ago. We sat down in the hotel’s mostly unlit breakfast room. Like the young Hinault, Alaphilippe has jet-black hair, thick eyebrows and a firm chin. He also has a ready smile and dark, friendly eyes. Alaphilippe’s French is precise, with just the hint of an accent from his roots in central France.
Glory. Winning atop Mt. Baldy. Image: Parks.
He was born in Saint-Amand-Montrond and lives at Désertines, a village just outside Montluçon—“right in the middle of France,” he said. “It’s a place I love to be in. I feel really good there. I don’t need much to be happy.” Montluçon is also the home of the 1956 Tour de France winner, Roger Walkowiak, now a sprightly 88-year-old. “I met him when I was much younger,” Alaphilippe said, reverently. “He’s part of cycling history…and our town.”
Asked about his upbringing near this city of 40,000 people that’s more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of Paris, Alaphilippe said, “At first, I was a drummer because my father was un chef d’orchestre [a band leader]. That’s something I still love. I adore all types of music. Music is very important in my life.”
And what about cycling? “When I was 12 or 13, I used to fool around on my [BMX] bike, doing stunts sometimes, and often getting injured. Then, one day, one of my mates said I should go to the club in Montluçon and ride with the youngsters on Wednesdays. He said, ‘That’d be good for you.’”
Remembering when Alaphilippe showed up at the Entente Cycliste de Montmarault Montluçon a decade ago, that cycling school’s then coach, Thierry Michaud, recalled: “He already had character and was a fabulous kid.” Another official added: “He was the smallest in the group but had something extra…the temperament, the mentality to win.”
Recalling those times a decade ago, Alaphilippe continued, “My dad bought me a bike and I started training and doing races on Sunday. And little by little, they saw I wasn’t bad and that I wanted to go farther all the time. And when I got older I surprised myself in always wanting to win, to be the best….
“I adore cyclocross, and that’s where I started getting good results.” In fact he had amazing results in his two seasons with the U.S. Florentaise, a small regional club team. He took a silver medal at the 2010 junior ’cross worlds and won a junior World Cup race at Heusden-Zolder in Belgium. Those results helped him get a place on the French army squad, L’Armée de Terre, a new UCI Continental team, with which he twice won the French national under-23 ’cross title.
Alaphilippe pointed out that a large part in his success has been played by his cousin: “Franck Alaphilippe is my trainer. He’s very important for me, someone I respect a lot. He’s very straightforward, kind and has great mastery of coaching…. It’s because if him that I am getting to know myself more and more…and it’s thanks to him that I’m now on a WorldTour team.
“Along with cousin Franck in the family, I have two younger brothers. Bryan, is 19 and rides with L’Armée de Terre, the team where I leaned a lot about cycling, so I am happy he’s there. He’s already won a few races… he’s very fast. I think he’ll be a future great sprinter. If not, I have another brother, who’s 11 years old.”
When Julian Alaphilippe was with the army team, he also raced for the French national U23 team. He came to Canada for the 2012 Coupe des Nations four-day at Saguenay, Québec, where he won the second stage and finished second overall to Kazakhstan’s Arman Kamyshev (now with Team Astana). Alaphilippe also rode the 2013 ’cross worlds in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was 22nd in the U23 race. “I fell at the start and did the whole race at the back,” he said.
That was just about the end of Alaphilippe’s ’cross career (though he still likes to compete in local events) because, after being scouted by the Belgians, the 2013 road season saw him racing for Etixx-IHNED.cz, the WorldTour team’s development squad. That year saw him take four wins in UCI-sanctioned races and gain selection for the French team at the road worlds in Florence, Italy. “I remember that race well,” said Alaphilippe, who bridged up to a breakaway on the second-last lap and went solo with 22 kilometers remaining. “I made a little beginner’s mistake in wanting to attack too soon, getting caught on the last lap and not being able to follow Mohoric—who won the race. But it was a good experience, and I was happy enough [with ninth place].”
So, at 21 and with only three years of road racing in his legs, Alaphilippe stepped up to the sport’s highest level with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. He made his debut in January 2014 in Australia, taking sixth place at the Tour Down Under Classic in a bunch sprint behind the German 1-2 of Marcel Kittel and André Greipel. Two months later, in his first European WorldTour stage race, the Volta a Catalunya, Alaphilippe placed third, fourth and second in the three field-sprint stage finishes. So was he going to be a sprinter, not a climber?
His first WorldTour classic was the Amstel Gold Race, where, 60 kilometers into the 250-kilometer race, his team director told him to go to the front of the peloton and ride a hard tempo. Alaphilippe followed orders and after nearly two hours on the front he said he “exploded” and watched the finale in the OPQS team bus. He was slowly getting acclimated to the longer distances and higher-paced accelerations of pro racing.
“I never used a heart-rate monitor or power meter before joining Omega Pharma,” said Alaphilippe, who previously relied on his feelings and a watch—much like Walkowiak in the 1950s and Hinault in the ’70s. But with a more scientific approach he was rapidly improving. At the opening 10-kilometer time trial in that June’s Critérium du Dauphiné, he was easily the fastest rider from his team, taking 14th place, only a second slower than BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen and two seconds faster than his team leader (and future world champion) Michal Kwiatkowski.
Alaphilippe continued riding as a support rider, but he showed his all-around qualities in the space of seven days in August. First, in an OPQS team stacked with sprinters at England’s RideLondon Classic on the 2012 Olympics road course, he was the only man from his team to make it into the 44-strong split after the circuits of Box Hill; and he then got into the winning four-man break, taking third place behind British sprinters Adam Blythe and Ben Swift, and ahead of a certain Philippe Gilbert.
Two days later, in the 4.6-kilometer prologue TT at the Tour de l’Ain in eastern France, he placed second to teammate Gianni Meersman, with team leader Rigoberto Urán (riding his first race since taking second at the Giro d’Italia) in fourth. Alaphilippe rode hard to help Meersman retain the leader’s jersey on the next two days, leading out the Belgian for the stage 2 win (Alaphilippe was fourth); and in the stage 3 mountain stage, after initially working for Urán, who wasn’t at his best, Alaphilippe salvaged 10th place to become the top OPQS rider. The 130-kilometer final stage took in eight classified climbs in the Jura mountain range. Over the last two hills, Alaphilippe joined a breakaway group with three renowned climbers, Irishman Dan Martin and the Frenchmen Bardet and Romain Sicard. Perhaps Alaphilippe could have beaten them in a sprint, but he elected to attack solo in the final kilometers and took his first major pro victory.
In that race, Alaphilippe roomed with teammate Mark Cavendish, who was coming back to racing after crashing out of the Tour de France the previous month. Alaphilippe led out the British sprinter to fifth place in their next race, Hamburg’s Vattenfall Cyclassics, and then the young Frenchman got into the winning break at another European classic, the GP Ouest France at Plouay, taking fifth himself. All these one-day WorldTour races, including those at Québec and Montréal in September, helped him learn how to pace himself better over longer distances.
Alaphilippe knew there was no pressure from the Etixx team bosses, who saw him as an invaluable lieutenant for world champ Kwiatkowski for this year’s final spring classics, the Amstel Gold Race (which the Polish rider won, with Alaphilippe in seventh) and the two Ardennes races. But he knew he had to step up his training regimen to be competitive in the finale of those tough, hilly classics.
Amgen Tour of California after winning the Baldy stage. Image: Parks.
“I prepared 100 percent for those races, as they suit my strengths,” he said. “I knew I could play a big role in the team to help Michal…I didn’t do those races to play my own card.” Alaphilippe described to L’Équipe one of his eight-hour training days before that week of classics: “After four and a half hours, I arrived at Saint-Amand-Montrond…where [my cousin] Franck was waiting for me. I rode for two hours behind his scooter, going very fast, to simulate race speed in the peloton…. I was on the edge of bonking at the end…but to train to that state of fatigue makes you feel strong in the head.”
At the Flèche Wallonne, Kwiatkowski wasn’t feeling great as the peloton headed to the finish up the rugged Mur de Huy and Alaphilippe was told by his director at the last minute to try his luck. That he worked his way through to the front on that steep, narrow climb and finished just a few bike lengths behind defending champ Valverde was testament to the French rider’s climbing strength, tactical sense and finishing speed. And four days later, all those who saw Alaphilippe throwing his right arm to the side in frustration as he narrowly failed to catch Valverde at the finish of Liège realize that this young man is a fierce competitor. Alaphilippe’s two runner-up spots were reminiscent of Hinault who, also at age 22, went to Belgium in 1977 and won his first two classics: Ghent-Wevelgem and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
I asked Alaphilippe whether his Ardennes performances were as incredible for him as they were for the cycling world in general. “Yes,” he said. “I didn’t expect to achieve such results. My first objective was to do the maximum for my team and our leader Michal Kwiatkowski, who’d already finished on the podium last year [at the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège]. I felt great in both of them and came close to winning one of the world’s most beautiful races. Looking back, I can see that those second places were great for me and gave a lot of pleasure to the people who follow me and to my team…so I’m very happy.”
I told Alaphilippe that Brian Holm thought that one day the Frenchman could also be a contender at the Tour of Flanders because of his background in cyclocross. “It’s a discipline that I really like, and gives me a lot of pleasure, and 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. 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. Etixx-Quick Step is a team with a great history in the classics, and the team always has a strong lineup for the cobbled classics, but, for the time being, I’m happy to focus on the Ardennes races.”
Finishing second to Valverde at the 2015 Fleche Wallonne. Image: Sunada.
Just two weeks after his Flèche and Liège successes, Alaphilippe was in Sacramento on the start line of the Tour of California, where his main job was to lead out Cavendish for stage wins. After Cav duly won the first two stages, Alaphilippe had a chance to show his all-around skills on the hilly third stage over Mount Hamilton to the uphill finish outside San Jose. Skujins crossed the line first, but the fierce sprint between Sagan and Alaphilippe one minute later proved to be one of the week’s highlights. Indeed, two-time Tour de France sprint champ Sagan needed all of his indomitable strength to hold off his French rival. It was a rivalry that continued through the Santa Clarita time trial, the Baldy mountaintop finish… and the eventual showdown at the Rose Bowl.
Their battle on Baldy—which climbs to an elevation of 6,478 feet (1,974 meters) and averages 9.5 percent grade for the final 5 kilometers and includes long, 15-percent pitches. With its frequent switchbacks, high elevation and, on race day, a swirling mist with snow on the roadsides, it’s as tough as any climb at the Tour de France.
When I asked Alaphilippe to describe his day on Mount Baldy, he said, “Today was a day that I’ve been thinking about since the start of the week. We’ve worked a lot for Mark Cavendish, and with three stage wins so far it’s already exceptional for us. Even so, I found myself sitting in third place overall after the difficult stage to Santa Clarita…and then I finished third in the time trial without losing much time, so today was a decisive stage for the general classification.”
After the 10.6-kilometer time trial, won by Sagan, the Tinkoff-Saxo star led the race by 28 seconds over Skujins, with Alaphilippe at 45 seconds and Sergio Henao of Team Sky a further 10 seconds back. At age 27 and in his fourth year with Team Sky, Henao is one of the world’s best climbers. He returned to racing this spring, nine months after breaking a knee in a collision with a truck last June. He was strong at the hilly Tour of the Basque Country in April, placing second to Joaquim Rodriguez, and he was seventh at the two Ardennes classics—so Alaphilippe knew all about the Colombian’s good form.
But, like Hinault, Alaphilippe is not a rider who is deterred by other riders’ reputations. “This morning,” he said in the Ontario hotel, “I told myself I wanted to pass the finish line without regrets. I wanted to give everything and in my head be pleased with myself…and that’s what I did. It was a short stage but very fast, full gas from the start. The break took a long time to form, and then Saxo and Sky controlled the race with a very high tempo…it was very hard. In the last 30 kilometers before Le Mont Baldy I stayed well placed, always in the top 15…. Then with 5 kilometers to go I saw Henao attack for the first time, and I followed him. I saw that Sagan was a little farther back. When Henao saw that I was behind him, he stopped [riding] a few times, and that wasn’t too good for my legs, so I preferred to attack solo. Henao lost a little distance behind me, so I focused on making my effort for as long as possible, and try to create as big a gap as possible on Sagan.”
Another near miss at the 2015 Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Image: Sunada.
Then, as he puffed out his cheeks, Alaphilippe added, “The last two kilometers were really [hard]. I had gone very deep with my effort. There was huge pain. When I passed the one-kilometer board I was going flat out—but everyone was like that. I finally believed in the victory with 500 meters to go where I saw it was flatter and around some turns, so I could recuperate, and I saw that Henao wasn’t right behind me. Everybody had told me that Baldy was very long… and the last 5 kilometers were very steep. So I just concentrated on my effort…. It was my first win of the season, so I’m very pleased.”
He then revealed that when he turned himself inside out on Baldy’s steepest pitches he was thinking of his mountaintop stage win at the 2013 Tour de l’Avenir. “I have to thank my [French national] teammate and friend Alexis Gougeard, who’s now with AG2R, for all the work he did for me that day. It was the same situation as today, arriving at the foot of the last climb with the other favorites, experiencing the same pain, going flat out and finishing completely spent. When I won on the Plateau des Gilières at the Avenir, it was the same pain: I attacked solo with 6 or 7 kilometers to go, battled all the way to the line with others chasing. I really thought about that again today….”
Regarding his defense of the California tour’s yellow jersey in the next day’s final stage around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Alaphilippe was totally calm about the outcome. “We’ll keep to our plan of trying to give Mark Cavendish another stage win,” he said, “but Peter Sagan’s team will try to control it for him, with all the time bonuses that could get him the jersey back. But I’ll have no regrets whatever happens. I’ve had a great week here….
“The Tour of California is a very well organized race… there’s a special ambiance and atmosphere that you sense in the public, the people at the side of the road, even on the podium with the speaker, everything is over the top!”
So, I half-joked, will you be going to Disneyland on Monday to celebrate? “Non, non…. After racing the classics, the Tour de Romandie and now this race, I can’t wait to get back to my family for some peace and calm. After a short rest I’ll do the Critérium du Dauphiné, go to the [inaugural] European Games in Baku [Azerbaidjan] with the French national team, and then do the French national championship. After another break, I’ll work toward my first grand tour, the Vuelta.”
My last question—and it’s one that the French will be asking him more and more as his career progresses—concerned the Tour de France. “When I was younger,” he said, “I remember a stage of the Tour finishing in Montluçon that practically came by my house…the publicity caravan, all the cars and the racers. Now I’m part of one of the world’s best teams, and I’ll probably ride the Tour, maybe next year. I’d feel good about doing it with this team. They have confidence in me. And the Tour’s something special for a French rider… and that’s why I’m doing the Vuelta this year to discover what it’s like to race for three weeks. To do my best for the team, I don’t need to ride the Tour this year and I’m very happy to wait. They have confidence in me, and I’ll do my best to profit from the chance.”
John Wilcockson on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE Twitter: @alafpolak Instagram: alafpolak