To understand what the playbook to beating Alaphilippe looks like, we need to work out the strengths and weaknesses of the 27-year-old.
World class power-to-weight power over 1-3 minutes
This allows him to win races like Fleche Wallonne and even do something like we saw on Stage 15, stay with Pinot when he launched initially, but when Pinot kept going, Alaphillipe had to drop off.
Great bike handler
Alaphilippe is a demon on the descents and doesn’t crash as much as other riders, if you factor in the risks he’s taking.
His TT result came as a surprise to many, but that was nearly a perfect course for Alaphilippe, a few punchy climbs, technical descents that rewarded risk-taking and it’s not like he’s bad on the flat in any case.
Deceuninck-QuickStep are the class team at this year’s Tour, there’s a reason they are sitting at the top of the Zwift Power Rankings! Arguably the strongest team on the flat and a bunch of top riders that will rally around their leader. Enric Mas dropping off GC will mean that he’s a helper now, rather than a contender, also a plus.
Leading a Grand Tour
We’ve seen Alaphilippe winning one week races, with maybe two mountain stages and a TT. Races like the Tour of California.
That’s different from backing up day after day for three weeks and delivering a consistent level on each and every climb. Perhaps winning the KOM classification in 2018 swings this weakness a bit back in his favour.
But they were a strength, right? Well not in the mountains.
Kasper Asgreen, Enric Mas… at a stretch Dries Devenyns can be there on decently hard climbs, with Enric Mas the real elite domestique now he’s down the pecking order. That is far behind the climbing rosters afforded to the likes of Ineos, Jumbo-Visma, Groupama-FDJ and Movistar.
Enric Mas is the joker, if he can rebound and become the much-needed lieutenant, then he will be one of the most important riders in the Tour.
The Game Plan
There’s a tried and tested formula for dealing with top-tier riders within weak teams. Isolate and attack.
We saw this on Stage 15, Movistar and a few other fringe GC guys forced Deceuninck-Quickstep to ride the front to limit the advantage Nairo Quintana gained on the day and by the time the riders reached the penultimate climb, the yellow jersey was by himself.
Landa attacked, going clear, in a 40 kilometre move gaining significant time after team mates positioned up the road helped drive his advantage. Alaphilippe couldn’t respond at this point, it was far too far out to expend that sort of energy.
Pinot also made use of team mates positioned up the road as Reichenbach helped him break Alaphilippe with a crucial 500 metre turn on the final climb.
I will say the tactics were slightly ruined by Jumbo-Visma. Rather than trying to put the yellow jersey into a tricky spot, they decided protecting Kruijswijk’s fourth from Landa was more important. The thing about being the yellow jersey is sometimes your rivals unwittingly help you.
This isolate and attack strategy only really works if you have better climbers and numbers to play with or if you think Alaphilippe has another weakness isolating him will exacerbate.
To that end we move onto his lack of Grand Tour riding as a contender for the overall. Certainly, you can make a case that his 2018 Tour was comparable to efforts that contenders, winning two stages and winning the mountains jersey is an impressive accomplishment.
What it wasn’t was the daily grind general classification contenders endure, the constant battle for position, responding to attacks and mitigating ‘bad days’. Alaphilippe has never been in this position before, has never had to subject his body to quite this sort of stress before and more importantly, didn’t prepare for this going into the Tour de France.
He’s up against elite athletes who built their entire seasons around preparing for these three weeks. He’s an accidental GC contender.
We’ve seen the power of the golden fleece before, Thomas Voeckler in particular springs to mind as he battled to fourth the year Cadel Evans won. Alaphilippe is a superior rider to Voeckler so shouldn’t we expect a better result?
We’ll see. In any case it will be a case of Julian Alaphilippe against the world if his opposition decides to exploit the isolate and attack strategy and he’ll have to pull off an against-the-odds ride to stay in yellow.