Julian Alaphilippe admits he is not yet back to 100 per cent fitness following his long injury lay-off, but says he's not far off as his comeback continues with an encouraging start to the Vuelta a España.
The Frenchman was forced to miss the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France due to a prepatellar lesion that flared up in April. After a tentative one-day outing in late July, Alaphilippe returned to racing in earnest earlier this month at the Vuelta a Burgos, and has played his part in two stage wins for his Quick-Step Floors team in the space of the Vuelta's first four days.
Firstly, on stage 2, he was the instigator of the late split that led to Yves Lampaert's solo victory, and on Tuesday's stage 4 he took control in the final couple of kilometres to join Lampaert in leading Matteo Trentin to victory.
"There's still some way to go, but I'm satisfied with myself at the start of this Vuelta. I'm taking the race day-by-day but I really do feel very good," Alaphilippe told L'Equipe.
"It has been a long, difficult period to go through. Before the Vuelta, I wanted to go to Burgos to rediscover the rhythm, and it's coming little by little. I can clearly feel that the legs aren't yet turning at 100 per cent, but I'm also here to fine-tune my condition, to help my teammates, and to rediscover the pleasure of racing my bike."
As well as playing his part in the team's success on the two flat stages so far, Alaphilippe will also be called upon to support the team's general classification rider, David de la Cruz.
"I'm free from riding for the general classification, so there is that option to go chasing stage wins. I think there are some possibilities that could offer themselves up, all the way to the end of this Vuelta. Above all, the legs have to continue to feel good."
On paper, he'll have one such opportunity on Wednesday's stage 5, which seems well suited to the Frenchman's punchy characteristics. After four second or third category climbs, there comes the first of the short but steep summit finishes that have come to define the Vuelta in recent years, with the 3.4-kilometre climb to Ermita de Santa Lucía hitting gradients of 20 per cent.
On the evidence of stage 3, however, Alaphilippe may have to wait until later in the race to take his chance, as he was quickly dropped on the Col de Rabassa on the race's first foray into the mountains. And making it all the way to Madrid is a goal in itself.
"The ideal outcome, of course, would be to be able to pull something off, and to complete the three weeks of racing," Alaphilippe said.