Julian Alaphilippe once again played down his chances of overall success at the Critérium du Dauphiné, despite winning the first mountain stage of the race and moving up to fourth overall. In his stage winner’s press conference in Lans-en-Vercors, he repeatedly stated his intention to ‘enjoy myself’ this week, with every pedal stroke taking him closer to the Tour de France.
If Alaphilippe is thinking about everything in the context of the Tour it’s partly because it will be only his second appearance. Last year a knee injury prevented him from racing both the Ardennes Classics and the Tour, and after winning La Flèche Wallonne this spring, the Frenchman is eager to make up for lost time on home soil next month.
On the evidence of the Dauphiné so far, there’s every indication he can do just that. After finishing second in the reduced sprint on stage 1, he won the first mountain stage in style, surviving the early hors-categorie ascent of the Col du Mont Noir before following the attacks in the final kilometre of the gentler final climb and springing clear in sight of the line.
“I’m super to happy to be able to have won a stage like that after not racing since Liège-Bastogne-Liège. That’s a good return to competition,” Alaphilippe said.
“Today was the stage that, on paper, suited me best. I had good feelings yesterday in the TTT and after coming so close to victory on the first stage it’s true, I really wanted to try again to take a great victory.”
Despite the apparent ease with which Alaphilippe followed Dan Martin’s attack inside the final kilometre and then kicked clear of the group of four in the final 100 metres, Alaphilippe revealed he had been struggling throughout the stage and had been pessimistic about his chances.
“On the final climb I think it was all in the head because everyone was flat-out – it was a really fierce tempo from Sky. I suffered all the way up the final climb but luckily the gradients weren’t too difficult so I managed to get by. But I really suffered on the long climb before, the Col du Mont Noir. It wouldn’t have needed to be much longer… I was really in difficulty, but I’m happy to have been able to get over and recover a bit on the descent.
“I doubted myself towards the end. Sky were setting a fierce tempo on the climbs, AG2R as well, and it was a complicated one with the storms in the middle. I was very much focused on that final climb. Even if I didn’t have super sensations, I still had a chance, but I didn’t think I’d be able to impose myself like that.”
It’s perhaps due to those ‘sensations’ that Alaphilippe was able to play down any talk of going for the overall title at the Dauphiné, under more questioning from the home media.
It seems no one knows exactly what sort of a rider Alaphilippe is – beyond a frighteningly talented and versatile one – and while he has made Classics the focus of the early part of his career, there is undeniable stage race potential, certainly over one week if not three. Yet, with the Tour still a month away, and with this Dauphiné route one of the most mountainous on record – there are three summit finishes still to come – Alaphilippe insisted the GC wasn’t on his radar, with Quick-Step targeting the title through Bob Jungels.
“I’m not being pessimistic – it’s just the sensations I have. It’s true that I did a three-week altitude camp with lots of climbing before coming here, but going for GC in a race as hard as this Dauphiné, when you see the stages coming up… I’m not a pure climber. I know that I have capabilities in the mountains but I’m not one of the best climbers in the peloton,” Alaphilippe said.
“I’m a little in the unknown. I’ve already surprised myself. I don’t know what awaits me. Maybe I’ll be better than I thought, maybe I won’t fare well. But Bob is still well placed and we’ll see what the next days hold. For me, it’s just about enjoying it. If I can do a good overall result, great, but with a stage victory I’m already very satisfied.”
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Tour de France
After finishing the first part of the season with a fine run at the Ardennes Classics – 7th at Amstel Gold, 1st at La Flèche Wallonne, and 4th at Liège behind Jungels – Alaphilippe took a break before training at altitude in the Sierra Nevada to build up to the second phase of his season.
Due to the football World Cup, the Tour de France has been pushed back a week, forcing an extra seven days between the Dauphiné and Tour, and consequently causing many Tour hopefuls to be cautious about their form. Alaphilippe is clearly starting to come good already and, as he explained, things will only intensify ahead of the Tour.
“It’s all coming thick and fast at the moment. After the Dauphiné I will have some days of recovery, then I’ll go on a short training camp to prepare some of the Tour stages in the Alps and Pyrenees with Bob and some team staff. Then I have the French championships, which is more or less a parcours for sprinters but I think I’ll compete anyway. The day after nationals we’re doing a recon of the cobbled stage of the Tour in the north, with the whole team. Then it’s only a few days until the Tour itself. So, like I said, it’s all coming thick and fast.”
It’s difficult to find too many stages that don’t suit Alaphilippe in some way, but the short sharp uphill finales on stage 6 up the Mur de Bretagne and stage 14 into Mende stand out.
“To be very honest, I’m very motivated to be starting my second Tour de France, but I‘m not really focused on one stage in particular,” Alaphilippe countered.
“I’m going to go and do some recons because I think that’s important to involve myself in the work of the team with Bob, who has ambitions for the overall. It’s always important to go and see the climbs, the descents. The race can be decided on those stages. After that, I know that there are certain stages which more or less suit me on paper – Mende, Mur de Bretagne, but I’m not focused on a stage in particular – I just want to enjoy it.”