"Que du bonus." It would be impossible to count the amount of times Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) has said those three words in the past week. The Frenchman had already made a success of his Tour de France long ago, and anything that would follow, he has repeatedly insisted, would be "just a bonus”.
Another day in the yellow jersey: just a bonus. Victory in the individual time trial: just a bonus. Second place atop the Col du Tourmalet: just a bonus?
It was far more than that.
This was a watershed moment in Alaphilippe’s Tour de France. Granted, it was the latest in a series of watershed moments, but this felt like the point at which disregarding him as a contender for the title was no longer a viable mode of thought.
When he took the yellow jersey in Epernay on stage 3, there were the faintest whispers of his prospects as an overall contender. They became murmurs when he finished with the best on La Planche des Belles Filles and then reclaimed yellow in Saint Etienne. Victory in the Pau time trial on Friday set tongues properly wagging, even if the initial reaction had been stunned silence.
However, the line of inquiry still seemed to be when – not if – Alaphilippe would fall away. The true test would come on the Col du Tourmalet, the first hors-categorie climb of the race and the first high-mountain summit finish.
Now, it’s ‘if’.
Alaphilippe finished second, beaten only by his compatriot, Thibaut Pinot. Behind him, the race was in pieces, Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte, Adam Yates, Jakob Fuglsang, Rigoberto Uran, Romain Bardet all strewn down the mountain. It was a staggering performance, perhaps more so than the time trial.
“I have no idea,” Alaphilippe said when the inevitable question came in the yellow jersey press conference atop the Tourmalet.
“I’m going to try to keep the yellow jersey for as long as possible. I continue to take it day-by-day. Tomorrow is another very difficult stage. There are some big chunks to come. I think there’ll be a lot of change between now and Paris.”
Then, he gave the first hint that he was beginning to entertain the prospect: “The nearer we get to Paris, the more I will ask myself the question.”
Alaphilippe won two mountain stages and the polka-dot jersey at last year’s Tour de France, so he’s no mere puncheur, but those successes came from breakaways. Matching the best climbers and GC riders on one of the Tour’s most iconic mountains was another proposition entirely.
Yet he looked at home throughout. He was in no trouble on the Col du Soulor, where Bardet was dropped, and kept the pace as Movistar forced the first big selection on the Tourmalet. At times, he was seen drifting towards the back of the group, but he’d always move back up.
Quintana, Yates, Porte, and Martin were all gone by the time FDJ hit the front in the last 6km, at which point Alaphilippe’s teammate, Enric Mas, fourth overall and wearing the white jersey, was dropped. The previous evening, Alaphilippe had insisted Mas was still the leader. Not anymore.
The big names kept dropping – Fuglsang, Uran, Thomas – but still Alaphilippe held firm. He entered the final kilometre as one of the six last standing and, while Pinot skipped clear for victory, used his kick to finish ahead of everyone else.
“I came to the top of the Tourmalet in the mix for the stage victory – that’s just unbelievable,” Alaphilippe said.
“I raced to defend the jersey because it’s an honour to have it on my shoulders. With my condition, I owed it to myself today to fight with the top guys, but I didn’t expect to be in the mix for the stage win.
“I saw some great riders cracking before me, and that motivated me and helped me go beyond myself to fight all the way to the line.”
Interestingly, Alaphilippe hinted he had it in him to win the stage. When Pinot went clear with 250 metres to go, he stayed behind Egan Bernal before accelerating away in the final 100 metres.
“At the end, I’d already been fighting to stay in the lead group for a little while, and I was on the limit,” he said.
“I prefer that it’s someone who I appreciate who won. I could certainly have jumped on his wheel, but I was also on the limit. I’m happy to finish behind Thibaut and to hold onto my jersey.”
Macron and Pinot
Alaphilippe’s relationship with Pinot is an intriguing one.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, was waiting at the top of the Tourmalet. He was interviewed behind the podium alongside the two French stars of the day, his right arm tucked around Alaphilippe, his left around Pinot. As he extolled the virtues of both, and the prospect of a home winner in Paris for the first time in 34 years, he was asked “which one?”
While Macron laughed it off, and Pinot smiled nervously, Alaphilippe muttered, under his breath: “Thibaut, Thibaut, Thibaut.”
The fruits of the pair’s improvised alliance in Saint Etienne might have been undone when Alaphilippe drove clear an echelon that would cost Pinot 1:40, but the bromance was back on at the top of the Tourmalet.
“With myself still in the jersey, and Thibaut winning the stage, that’s perfect,” Alaphilippe said.
If Alaphilippe is going to start to considering himself a contender, he will have to treat Pinot, who would be second overall were it not for his losses in the crosswinds, as one of his biggest rivals – if not the biggest. So, in the context of the question marks hanging over Alaphilippe’s ambitions, it was interesting that he refused to view him as such.
“It was his objective to win the Tour de France. It wasn’t mine, coming here. I don’t see him as a rival,” Alaphilippe said of Pinot.
“I’m in the yellow jersey at the moment, but he’s still a contender for the overall victory. He’s not my teammate but I don’t consider him a rival. I’m very happy he won today."
For how long can Alaphilippe claim to not be a contender? For many, that notion ended on the Tourmalet. Yet he's right when he says the road is long. He passed the first high-mountain test, but there's another right around the corner on Sunday. It's one thing doing it once; it's another doing it back-to-back. Even if he makes it through the Pyrenees, there's the not-insignificant matter of the Alps in the final week, and not just backing up mountain stages but mountain ranges.
For now, though, Alaphilippe is in yellow and that's all that matters to him. Everything else is "que du bonus". But it could be so much more.