Second place at Flèche Wallonne meant that Julian Alaphilippe’s Ardennes campaign had already hit a high note as the young Etixx-QuickStep rider netted France’s best result in the mid-week Classic since 2000. But then on Sunday, Alaphilippe eclipsed his own achievement in Flèche with an even more outstanding runner-up spot at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the best result for France in La Doyenne since Laurent Jalabert in 1998.
Perhaps the crucial difference between Jalabert in 1998 and Alaphilippe in 2015 is that whereas ‘the Panda’ was at the height of his powers when he finished second at Liège behind Michele Bartoli for the second year running in 1998, Alaphilippe, at 22, still has considerable room for improvement.
The Frenchman was clearly not satisfied with claiming a podium finish in his first-ever participation in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, either, waving his right arm in frustration after edging his way around Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) into second behind Valverde for the second time in five days.
As on Wednesday, Alaphilippe had been fully subject to Etixx-QuickStep’s team orders to work for protected rider Michal Kwiatkowski, and he followed the squad’s game-plan faithfully throughout the race.
But when the World Champion and Amstel Gold winner realised on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas that he was not in great shape, in a carbon copy of last Wednesday’s final minutes of Flèche Wallonne, Etixx-QuickStep’s directors radioed through to the young Frenchman that he was able to ride his own race.
Alaphilippe then played a crucial role in the outcome of the race by unintentionally dragging the remnants of the front group back up to Valverde on the climb to Ans as he chased the Spaniard down. That also made his final sprint for the line even more impressive given that the young Frenchman had burned a few matches just moments before.
“I would have preferred to win,” Alaphilippe said afterwards. “But it was my first participation in Liège and I was a little bit too far back in the final kilometre.
“Of course I’m disappointed, because if I was on the point of cracking on Wednesday, today I really felt I could have done something more. Everybody was watching Valverde, because we knew he was the strongest, and with 400 metres to go he went after [Dani] Moreno.
“I made the effort to get back on again, and we were all pretty exhausted after 250 kilometres, then I had my problems with Rui Costa and that cost me a bit. But in any case Valverde was the strongest today. I didn’t have the legs. There are no excuses.”
Still, had he been looking for excuses, the fact that Alaphilippe had been entangled in the big crash before La Redoute, too, when a rider fell just ahead of him, was yet another factor playing against the stand-out performance he still proved capable of producing.
“I could get back on, and tried my best to recover. Kwiatkowski was still up there and Stybar was working really hard to chase down the break, and then it was up to me to chase down the breaks on Saint-Nicolas.
“Then at the top of San Nicolas, I looked around and realised I was the only rider [from Etixx Quick Step] who was there and I heard through the radio I could go for it in the sprint.
“I’m sure Michal’s very disappointed, he’s had a very good week what with winning the Amstel Gold. Today we were working for him, too, but then I had good legs for the sprint."
Coming so close to success was clearly frustrating. However, Alaphilippe is just 22 years old and finished between two Classics veterans, in Valverde (35) and Joaquim Rodriguez (36). It’s an impressive achievement for the youngster that bodes well for France’s chances in the Classics, and perhaps taking their first Doyenne win since Bernard Hinault in 1980.