The high expectations were held off a bit by Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-QuickStep) before the start of the second stage in the 2016 Tour de France from Saint-Lô to Cherbourg-En-Cotentin. The 24-year-old French rider claimed he was one of the several cards the team could play out in the undulating final kilometres, being here mostly to learn during his maiden Tour de France.
During the uphill bunch sprint Alaphilippe reached out for the victory but fell just short, beaten by World champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff).
"Just after crossing the finish line I was extremely disappointed. It was very frustrating and hard to accept when you’re alone in front with 100 metres to go," Alaphilippe said when talking to the media in the mixed zone more than half an hour after the stage finish. "Now I realize that this is my first Tour and I was beaten by the World champion. There are enough stages left to achieve nice things."
When Cyclingnews talked with Alaphilippe before the start of the stage he was holding off the pressure. "It’s my first Tour de France. I’m here to help the team the best way I can. It’ll be hard. The final kilometres are a long string of small roads through the city and small climbs. At the end of a long day it’ll be very nervous with the rain and very fast. We have nice cards to play in the team with Petr Vakoc, Maximiliano Richeze, Dan Martin and me. It’s a final that suits me. We’ll see how the legs go. There’s a dozen riders who can win here like Simon Gerrans, Valverde, Peter Sagan, Edvald Boasson Hagen, but he crashed yesterday.”
Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) was well aware that Alaphilippe could do well, naming him as the top favourite. "He’s a rider who already showed this year and last month that he can go very well. He also went very well in the [Criterium du] Dauphiné. He’s motivated on home soil," Rodriguez told Cyclingnews.
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After the stage, Alaphilippe explained that he just wasn’t very sure he could do well on this terrain. "Before the stage I didn’t expect to excel in a sprint finish like this one here with this competition, but during the stage I felt comfortable. It was very nervous and difficult. The breakaway group got far. They pulled off a strong ride. After doing the recon ride I knew where I had to be positioned well, and to be honest, I felt really good on the final climb; I was surprised."
At the end of a strong 2015 season Alaphilippe was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He worked hard to get back to his high level with Etixx-QuickStep doctor Toon Cruyt and their work paid off. Recently he’s been riding very well at the Criterium du Dauphiné, where he won the youth classification, and just before that he outclassed the competition at the Tour of California.
In the Ardennes one-day classics he’s been encountering Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on three occasions. He finished as runner-up behind the Spaniard in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2015, and then twice in Flèche Wallonne in 2015 and 2016. On a grey and wet Sunday in the Normandy region he finally managed to beat Valverde into third, only to have Sagan finish just ahead of him.
"To me it doesn’t matter who finishes ahead or behind me. You’ve got to try to win. Today Sagan was stronger. I’m very happy that I get to wear the white jersey. That’s the positive I take from this stage. I’ll see day by day how long I can keep it. It’s not the end of the world if I lose it but I’ll keep it as long as possible. It’s a blow not to win but I’ve got to keep in mind that this is my first Tour and today was part of the learning curve I have to go through."
This Sunday evening Alaphilippe won't keep thinking about his second place, however, saying he would be supporting the French football team when they take on Iceland at the European championships in France.