Time is very much still on Julian Alaphilippe’s side, but 2018 could be a pivotal year in his career. The 25-year-old’s extraordinary talent and potential have been repeatedly evidenced over the course of his first four seasons as a professional cyclist but, after a string of podium placings in major races, he’s keen to banish the nascent ‘nearly-man’ tag before it really sets in.
The Quick-Step Floors rider burst onto the scene at the Ardennes Classics in 2015 with runner-up finishes at La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and he was second again at Flèche the following year. In 2017, he finished third at Milan-San Remo and second at Il Lombardia, which has led to questioning in France as to why he hasn’t yet claimed that first major scalp.
“The second places and the podiums that I’ve had in the big races, they’re not necessarily disappointments. I’ve learned a lot from those failures, even if they’re not really failures – they’re still great performances of which I’m proud,” Alaphilippe said when asked about it in a group interview at Quick-Step Floor’s recent training camp in Calpe.
“But I’m someone who likes to win, who needs to win, so those moments, I want to turn them in to success right away."
As for pinpointing the difference between defeat and victory, he said he couldn't put his finger on a specific example. "It’s just an accumulation of lots of small things. Nowadays, victories come down to fine margins. It’s experience, it’s strength, it can be anything. There are so many parameters that come into play. I know my character and I know that looking at my energy and efforts in the race can only help me. I know I’m getting better and better."
The two Monument podiums in 2017 amount to what Alaphilippe describes as the best season of his career so far. Add in a maiden Grand Tour stage win at the Vuelta a España, a stage and fifth overall at Paris-Nice, and a close grab for the rainbow jersey at the World Championships, and it’s difficult to argue.
Yet, on the other hand, the campaign went horribly awry. Alaphilippe suffered a serious knee injury at the Vuelta al País Vasco in April, ruling him out of the two biggest targets of his season – the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France.
“It makes you more mature. It makes you stronger in the head, that’s for sure,” Alaphilippe said of his injury lay-off and rehabilitation. “You come out stronger, because you always want things to go well, and when there’s a setback like that it’s always irritating. It was a big disappointment before the classics because I’d done a lot of work to get there in good shape.
“But, it’s something that makes you stronger for what’s ahead. It’s all part of an elite-level sporting career, I think. I hope things are different this year, it’s a new season and I hope I have a bit more luck.”
'There are many things I want to achieve in the future'
Alaphilippe will approach the 2018 season from “the same point of view” as last term, given he missed out on the chance to make his mark in the Ardennes and at the Tour de France.
He will get things underway in Colombia at the new Oro y Paz race in early February, and will then do the Abu Dhabi Tour later that month ahead of his first big test, Paris-Nice. Frome there, Milan-San Remo is just around the corner and after that he’ll be hoping for better luck at the Vuelta al País Vasco in April as he fine-tunes his form for the Ardennes, the “major focus” of the first part of his season.
Alaphilippe will try and win a first Tour de France stage in July, while Il Lombardia and the World Championships – held on a hilly course in Austria – are the keys to the latter part of his season.
“It’s difficult to choose just one race that suits me best,” he said. “But Liege and Lombardia are two Monuments I’ve enjoyed and managed to finish on the podium. I’ve really had the feeling of being very close, and I feel capable of winning those races one day.”
This year may be primarily about making up for lost time, but Alaphilippe suggests his focus will broaden in the following years.
Such is the breadth and depth of his talent, he has been talked about as a potential Grand Tour contender, and when mentioning the Tour de France he said he won’t be going for GC “for the time being”. In the one-day sphere, too, there’s still plenty new to go at.
“There are still races I’m yet to discover – I’ve never done the Tour of Flanders, it’s a race I want to discover one day," he said. "The problem is being strong at that race and being strong later at the Ardennes – you have to make a choice.
"For the moment, I’ve managed to get good results in the Ardennes, at Classics like Lombardia, and I know they’re the races which suit me best. I don’t want to spread myself too thin. I’m going to stay focused on my objectives but there are many, many things I want to achieve in the future.”
Leadership and status
Alaphilippe is still just 25 years old but, in terms of stature, he finds himself as one of the senior figures at Quick-Step Floors. Philippe Gilbert’s return to form since his arrival from BMC Racing looks to have softened the impact of Tom Boonen’s retirement, but an investment in youth has seen the average age plummet, and Alaphilippe is seen as a key figure in keeping those big wins ticking over.
The departure of Dan Martin to UAE Team Emirates, along with Gilbert’s expected focus on the cobbled Classics this season, certainly makes Alaphilippe the linchpin for the Ardennes.
“I feel I’m affirming myself year-on-year but it’s true that this year I will have a leadership role more regularly, let’s say,” he said.
“In this team we have good riders who’ve left, leaders too, like Dan Martin, or Matteo Trentin. On the other hand, whether it’s Bob [Jungels], Philippe, or me, we’re going to have our responsibilities as normal, or even more so this year. But I enjoy that.
“It’s not pressure, no. It’s a little extra challenge. I always need to have that to keep moving forward. It’s a good thing – it’s not too soon.”
Alaphilippe paid tribute to the “winning mentality” at Quick-Step Floors and, repeating what has become something of a mantra for the Belgian team’s riders over the year, insisted their strength in depth is a help rather than a hindrance. The Frenchman is one of three riders – alongside Fernando Gaviria and Philippe Gilbert – who could win Milan-San Remo this year, and Gilbert in particular is someone who has won almost everything Alaphilippe aspires to.
“We get on very well. He’s a rider I have a lot of respect for, for the career he’s had,” Alaphilippe said of Gilbert.
“There are similarities between us in our character and the type of races we like. Last year we spent a lot of time together because we had a similar programme at the start of the season. He does his career, and I do mine. Each time he’s given me advice, I have listened – I know he looks out a lot for me. But he also has his own objectives. We don’t have to be compared; we’re two different riders. He has his career, and I have mine.”
Even if he shies away from the comparisons, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine Alaphilippe ending his career with a palmares of a similar calibre as Gilbert’s.
“Year-on-year I do everything I can to make progress, to take steps forward season after season”, he said. He knows the next step is the top one of a Monument podium.