Ahead of the stage 13 time trial at the Tour de France the question on most lips was centered around how much time Julian Alaphilippe would concede to his rivals over the 27.2-kilometre test around Pau. By the end of the Frenchman's performance, the question was irrelevant with a fresh query as to whether Deceuninck-QuickStep's talisman could hold his lead to Paris.
In two days, when the race leaves the Pyrenees, that too might be a moot point but in the here and now of the Tour de France Alaphilippe's grip on the lead seems more than just a temporary fixation.
Fastest at every time check, Alaphilippe who had only ever won two individual time trials until this point, was simply unstoppable, and on a day when the maillot jaune celebrated its 100-year anniversary the 27-year-old delivered a performance that captivated a nation, as well as pockets of a press room that burst into rapturous applause as he skidded to the line to put further distance between himself and Geraint Thomas.
Alaphilippe now leads the defending champion by 1:26 after putting 14 precious seconds into the Team Ineos leader. The Welshman is the only rider within two minutes of the race leader, and with the mountains set to start in earnest this weekend the race has taken on an advanced dynamic.
"I knew that I really could do a good performance on this parcours. I just gave everything, especially in the first part which was really good for me. I went full
gas to see what I could do by the line. My sports director said I had the first time, ten seconds or whatever. I gave everything I have and I won the stage," Alaphilippe said at the finish.
"I'm just so happy. With a parcours like this and my shape, I just did everything that I can. I just want to enjoy.
"I think to do something like I did, with my confidence and my shape and my team around me. OK, we don't have the team to win the Tour de France.
"We don't have a lot of climbers in Deceuninck-Quickstep for the Tour, but we ride, we are aggressive and we try to win. I'm just so happy with what happened now."
Whether Alaphilippe has the team to defend a race lead is somewhat secondary at this point. The fact is that the Frenchman has built up a sizeable lead in this race and it's up to others to take his position seriously.
However, the win on stage 3, the time gained at La Planche des Belles Filles, and then at Saint Etienne appear to have the hallmarks of a rider capable of challenging for the win. It's somewhat reminiscent of how Thomas fought tooth and nail last year for bonus seconds before firmly establishing himself as a true contender.
"Tomorrow is the first summit finish, I don't want to do so much, just so happy to be in yellow. I hope to be in the front as long as possible, and if I feel bad, I'll help Enric Mas, and if I do feel good I hope I'll not be dropped."
Mas finished ninth on the stage and has quietly moved into fourth overall at 2:44 behind his French teammate. In one stage QuickStep have moved ahead of Ineos in terms of the cards they can currently play after Egan Bernal put in a subdued performance that saw him drop to fifth on GC.
I'm not here to answer suspicions
For Alaphilippe the plan, in public at least, is to take the race 'day-by-day' but with every additional day in yellow comes the inevitable questions over the legitimacy of his performances. In Pau, he was asked by one reporter if he was ready to face the same level of scrutiny that followed Chris Froome in recent years.
"I never imagined I'd win a yellow jersey and go into the mountains as the leader of the Tour. I'm not here to answer suspicions," he said.
"I know the work I've done. I'm the first one to be surprised. Success always creates stories but I'm just here to ride my bike. I know that being in the first position always make people talk. If I was in the last place, with all respect to Offredo who's my friend, I wouldn't face these questions."
"With the yellow jersey it was something really special. The target is to be as long as possible in yellow. Today is a big bonus. I just want to surprise myself and go as long as possible with yellow. The crowd shouting for me was very special. It's difficult to do better than what I did today. To win like this is just amazing. This win is more than a cherry on the cake. It's a huge bonus. Tomorrow's the first summit finish, there's going to be a lot of action. It's the 100th anniversary, and I can be proud of making my mark on the sport. People are very happy to see a guy in yellow, they like that."