Julian Alaphilippe has packed more than most into the past twelve months but despite the tribulations of last spring and summer, the Quick-Step Floors rider returns to Paris-Nice this weekend in a position to pick up precisely where he left off this time last season.
A year ago, Alaphilippe illuminated Paris-Nice with victory in the Mont Brouilly time trial, a stint in the overall lead and fifth place in Nice. A week later, the Frenchman was among the protagonists of a thrilling edition of Milan-San Remo, placing third in a breathless finale on the Via Roma. A signature win seemed just around the corner.
A knee injury sustained at the Tour of the Basque Country brought Alaphilippe's spring campaign to an abrupt halt, however, and threatened to ruin his entire season. Yet seemingly against all odds, he returned to action in August, and promptly won a stage at the Vuelta a España, before enduring a near miss at the World Championships in Bergen after a searing attack on the final lap.
Alaphilippe rode those final weeks of 2017 like a man desperately in search of lost time – he also placed second at Il Lombardia and fourth at the inaugural Tour of Guangxi – and he has continued in a similar vein in the opening months of 2018. A stage win at the Colombia Oro y Paz race was followed by fourth overall at a high-octane edition of the Abu Dhabi Tour.
"Winning so early in Colombia didn't change anything for me, it just gave me a lot of confidence for what's to come," Alaphilippe told Cyclingnews in Abu Dhabi last week. Not that confidence was in short supply after his strikingly assured return to action last summer following knee surgery.
"It wasn't a surprise because I had really put a lot of work – really a lot – into getting back. I put weeks of work into the rehabilitation, then my training, and I made my return in Burgos. It was tough but I could see that things were getting better very quickly. Being fresh helped me, too. I was a long time out of training, but once I got back, I was fresh and I could build up form very quickly. So it wasn't a surprise for me, but I was still very happy to finish the season like I did. It was a super return."
It was Alaphilippe's second lengthy spell on the sidelines in his short professional career to date, albeit an easier one to manage than his bout of mononucleosis in late 2015 and early 2016. This time around, once Alaphilippe opted for surgery, he had a clear time-frame for a return to the saddle.
"The mononucleosis was a bit more difficult because I didn't know how long it was going to last and when I could come back," he said. "I was tired all the time and it took a bit of time, although I was lucky that it was over the winter so I just started my season a little bit later."
Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo
Alaphilippe was just four years old when Laurent Jalabert became the last French winner of Paris-Nice back in 1997, and one senses that the weight of home expectation does not weigh particularly heavily on his shoulders. If anything, Alaphilippe seems inspired by racing on home roads – witness the all-action Tour de France debut that introduced him to Le Grand Public in 2016 – and the puncheur will approach next week's race with a typically worry-free approach. The stage 4 time trial to Saint-Etienne looks likely to be pivotal, but the winner of the last year's chrono breezily admits that he knows precious little about the parcours.
"We'll take it day-by-day, because Paris-Nice is a race where a lot of things can happen, between echelons, the weather, the parcours," Alaphilippe said. "It's a very difficult race but one that I like a lot. I'll do everything I can for the general classification, but it's more of a case of going out to try to win stages and then a good result on the general classification will follow. Either way, Paris-Nice is the start of an important period for me. My condition is good, and I hope to get better and better until the Ardennes Classics."
Before Liège in late April, of course, Alaphilippe will be part of an all-star Quick-Step line-up at Milan-San Remo, alongside Philippe Gilbert, Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani. Speaking during the Abu Dhabi Tour, Viviani suggested that the entire race would hinge on what world champion Peter Sagan does or does not do on the Poggio, though Alaphilippe is not certain La Classicissima is ever quite that simple.
"I don't know, but we've got riders who can wait for the sprint, and then there are riders like me and Philippe Gilbert who can follow the moves – or make moves," Alaphilippe said. "Last year's scenario was something quite rare, which hasn't happened very often recently, so it doesn't mean it's going to happen again this time around. We don't know what's going to happen, so I'll just take it as it comes."
Alaphilippe had a box seat view of the man to beat in the Ardennes Classics after he was among the few riders able to offer up some resistance to the rampant Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the final haul up Jebel Hafeet at the Abu Dhabi Tour last Sunday. After placing second to Valvede at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2015, and at Flèche Wallonne in 2015 and 2016, Alaphilippe is all too aware that the road to victory in the Ardennes will likely run through the veteran Spaniard.
"I'm building experience year by year, but there's no substitute for hard work. I'm just training like I should, to be 100 per cent and have no regrets," said Alaphilippe, who is still only 25 years of age. "In the last few years, Alejandro Valverde has simply been the strongest, so it's up to me to be better than him to try to win. But I'm not the only rider who could be a rival to Alejandro Valverde, there are lots of riders who can win in the Ardennes."
It remains to be seen whether Gilbert extends his spring campaign beyond his tilt at Paris-Roubaix, but following the departure of Dan Martin to UAE-Team Emirates, it is clear that Alaphilippe is the key man in the Quick-Step challenge at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The responsibility of team leadership, he admitted, is something he relishes.
"Yes, I like that. I need that, to have a challenge," Alaphilippe said. "To have the objective of being the best is important for me."