Julian Alaphilippe and Remco Evenepoel combined forces to give Deceuninck-Quickstep an important stage victory on day two at the Vuelta a San Juan, setting up a chance for either of them to take the race lead in Tuesday’s 12km time trial stage and perhaps even win the overall classification.
Alaphilippe won the stage with a perfectly timed and perfectly executed late attack, going away with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) before kicking away again to hold off the chasers. Evenepoel made sure he was well placed on the short climb up to the edge of Punta Negra dam when Alaphilippe attacked and then finished 15th in the chase group.
The 19-year-old neo-pro began his career in the spotlight after dominating the junior time trial and road race world titles events last September. He skipped the under-23 ranks and immediately became a professional with Deceuninck-Quickstep, and the Belgian fans and media loved his ability and natural confidence. He and Deceuninck-Quickstep have tried to play down the hype and expectation but Evenepoel showed it was justified in a single performance.
Evenepoel was overjoyed to have ridden so well. After congratulating Alaphilippe on his stage victory, he rode to Deceuninck-Quickstep’s team van, happy to explain the finale of the stage and share his emotions with the team staff. They were happy to help him wipe the fatigue and dirt from his face, knowing they are also working with a huge talent.
The value of his performance was confirmed by the arrival of a race official who informed Evenepoel that he needed to go to the podium because he had taken the best under-23 rider’s green jersey. At just 19 and in his debut race as a professional, he had already done better than the other 24 under-23 riders in the Vuelta a San Juan. He also moved up to 13th overall, only 13 seconds down on teammate Alaphilippe. He is within touching distance of the race lead and is perhaps one of the best time triallists in the top 50 of the overall classification.
Evenepoel proudly walked to the podium area and enjoyed collecting the praise, the flowers and kisses. He was clearly happy to enjoy his first moment as part of Deceuninck-Quickstep’s success.
“We did what we had to do, we wanted to win with Julian and we won, so I think it's a perfect day for us today,” he said.
“This is not really my thing, the short climbs, it was really hard for me but I gave everything I had and I finished in the front group. I saw Julian was attacking and so I didn't have to do anything. I just followed and followed and then in the sprint I just arrived in the group. We did everything we wanted to do and it worked out. I think everyone is happy, all the team is happy.”
“We’re already the third victory of the team this year, so maybe we will go for 77 again this year,” he said, recalling how Quick-Step won an incredible 73 races in 2018.
Alaphilippe off the mark
Alaphilippe was also on a high after his stage victory. In 2018, he started his run of success at the Colombia 2.1 stage race. He will race there in early February but has opened his account two weeks earlier this year at the Vuelta a San Juan.
"It’s always important to start the season well,” Alaphilippe said. “I have some really important races in Italy in March after riding in Colombia, so I think this is good preparation for Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo and then all the classics in Belgium. I’m really happy to start my season here in South America and happy to win so soon.”
Alaphilippe ended 2018 bitterly disappointed after cracking on the final climb of the World Championships road race after the French squad had sacrificed their chances for him. He kept a low profile during the winter but was looking to put his disappointment behind him.
“I surprised myself by taking the win in the way I did. But I did a lot of work to restart at a good level after my great season. I think I’m on track to continue to do well,” he said.
“I aim to get better each year and last year it was good to start with a win early in Colombia and then continue winning. I continue to work hard and I’m really motivated. I hope to surprise myself again this year.”
Nobody should be surprised if Alaphilippe goes on to ride well in Tuesday’s time trial, as well as on the Queen stage to Alto Colorado on Friday, and so win the 2019 Vuelta a San Juan. However he is keen to push back against any pressure and expectation.
“There’s the time trial next but I’m here to start my season and wanted to win a stage first of all. I’ve done that and so now I’ll take the GC day by day,” he said.
“There’s no pressure on me to do well in the general classification. Stage 3 is another day. I’ll try to do my best again. If I get a good result, it’s nice, if I lose time, it’s no stress.”