Entertainer. Aggressor. Monument winner. Classics winner. Puncheur. We thought we knew Julian Alaphilippe. He’s won the odd stage race, the Tour of California, Tour of Britain, Tour of Slovakia. The polka dot jersey. Stages of the Tour de France. But a grand tour winner?
When you follow professional cycling, reservation becomes your default position. If it looks too good to be true…
The Team Sky / Ineos dominance of grand tours in recent years has been troubled. The outfit, first with Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome and then Geraint Thomas strangled the race, a slow, heavy foot on the throats of the opposition. Overall victory became a fait accompli through a show of force and yet, met with a great deal of scepticism and derision.
Wiggins’ transformation and then Froome’s rise in grand tour ranks were dogged by suspicion. The clumsy actions of team management didn't help with more than a few PR blunders along the way. Thomas, too, hasn’t been immune and in his elevation to Tour de France winner last year, the Welshman was forced to declare his win came down to hard work and the result would stand the test of time.
We all know what happened to the last team to dominate the Tour de France in such a manner. The record books are littered with both asterisks and stories of greatness requiring adjustment when the truth is revealed with each new era and expectation around clean sport. Cycling’s anti-doping diligence remains both a blessing and a curse.
There are already question marks around Alaphilippe's achievements at this year’s Tour. He has undoubtedly been assisted by the camera motos, first on Stage 8 to Saint-Étienne, again during the ITT and to a lesser extent on Sunday. But is there more to what we’re seeing? Only time will tell, and the same goes for every other result on any given day of racing. It remains the fact not all teams within the peloton receive the same level of interrogation as Team Ineos.
Allowing ourselves to dream big for a moment, Alaphilippe is breaking the mould – quite a few of them at that. The parcours constructed by the A.S.O. – especially over the first 10 days or so - has played to Alaphilippe’s strengths as a climber but with his showing on the Tourmalet on Saturday, we saw something altogether different. The effort of the ITT the previous day did no favours to some of the GC contenders, Thomas, Quintana, Adam Yates among them.
The show of force we’ve come to expect from Team Ineos, where any attacks are reeled in, never materialised. In fact, Jumbo-Visma through George Bennett played the role on the Tourmalet usually reserved for Michał Kwiatkowski. It was like a parallel universe, and Thomas’ rivals, both internal (Egan Bernal) and external (Alaphilippe, Thibaut Pinot, Steven Kruijswijk, Emanuel Buchmann, Mikel Landa, Rigoberto Urán) took advantage.
Alaphilippe winning an ITT is not unheard of. He won one earlier this year in Argentina and again back in 2017 at Paris-Nice where he finished ahead of Alberto Contador. The result is still unexpected. If Wout van Aert’s fate hadn’t collided with a barrier, there might have been a different stage result. But Alaphilippe would always be in yellow after the ITT.
The yellow jersey is said to give its owner added abilities at the head of the race. Of course, just as we know, wearing Superman’s cape does not allow you to fly, the power of yellow exists only in one’s imagination. Mindset, however, plays a vital role in one’s mastery of sport as in life.
Alaphilippe gives mixed messages; to the press post-stage, he plays down his chances of staying in yellow, speaks of his surprise, although he rides as if he believes anything but. Perhaps actions do speak louder than words. The flashy entertainer can be humble, too.
No one can deny the success of Deceuninck-QuickStep in recent seasons. The Belgian team's wins span the calendar year, but isn't considered a squad featuring grand tour specialists or contenders. That's why the future of Enric Mas is believed to be with Movistar.
Five kilometres from the finish on Sunday, Alaphilippe showed his fragility, battling with his bike as Pinot attacked and rivals bit into his race lead. The façade that led us to wonder what’s possible for the Frenchman now bears a significant crack. It’s almost a relief.
The shuffling of the decks will continue after the rest day and so too probably the inevitable questions around just what is possible when you wear yellow.