Julian Alaphilippe's winning momentum is rolling straight into the upcoming men's road race at the UCI Road World Championships. He will line up for the elite event in Innsbruck, Austria, on Sunday as the favourite to win the world title, but, if he doesn't succeed, there's a good chance that one of his teammates – Romain Bardet or Thibaut Pinot – will be there to take the rainbow jersey home to France.
"I'm very relaxed and excited, and I'm looking forward to getting to the start," Alaphilippe told Cyclingnews from the SportHotel in Igls, located halfway up the mountainside from Innsbruck and overlooking the Bergisel Ski Jump used during the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympic Games.
"There aren't 50 riders that can win on this parcours," he said. "For sure, I want to do my best because I'm motivated. It's going to be a really hard race. We have strong riders in the French team, but for sure, I'm motivated, and I want to come back home with no regrets, so I will give my best."
France last won the elite men's road race world title when Laurent Brochard took the gold medal in San Sebastian in 1997. Over the last 60 years, there have been seven French winners in Luc Leblanc (1994), Bernard Hinault (1980), Jean Stablinski (1962), André Darrigade (1959), Louison Bobet (1954) and Antonin Magne (1936), while the first of them was Georges Speicher in 1933.
The course in Innsbruck is thought to be one of the toughest in the history of the championship event. A long race at 258.5km on a parcours that includes one long loop from Kurstein and takes the field up to Gnadenwald – a steep 5km ascent. They then descend onto the six shorter circuits around Innsbruck, routed over the climb to Igls.
The toughest challenge comes at the end of the race, where the course kicks up over the final Höll climb, with pitches as steep as 25 per cent, before the descent to the finish line in downtown Innsbruck.
"I don't know the course very well," Alaphilippe said. "I've only ridden in twice, on Friday, and it was really, really hard. The last climb is hard, but the race before that climb will also be hard. It will be a hard day."
Of the elite World Championships that Alaphilippe has competed in during previous years, he didn't finish in Richmond, USA, in 2015, and he was 10th in Bergen, in Norway, last year. He said that this parcours is the one that would suit him best of the three because it's the hardest.
"I need something hard," he said. "Last year, it was not a hard enough course for me. It was hard, but not as hard as this course. Maybe it will be too hard for me on Sunday, but it's good for the French team that it's a tough course."
Alaphilippe said that he's had the best season of his career with a victory at Flèche Wallonne, two stage wins at the Tour de France, victory at the Clasica San Sebastian, and stages and the overall titles at the Tour of Britain and Tour of Slovakia.
Bardet and Pinot will join him on the team along with Tony Gallopin, Anthony Roux, Warren Barguil, Alex Geniez, Anthony Roux and Rudy Molard.
Alaphilippe will have support from his teammates Bardet and Pinot – two riders who could be described as pure climbers, who are stronger in the mountains than Alaphilippe, but perhaps not as 'punchy'.
Bardet told Cyclingnews that he's looking forward to this particular Worlds because it's not often that the routes cater to climbers.
"It's not every year that you have the sort of course that can suit my ability, and so it's a good chance for me," Bardet said. "It's rare for me, and for all the climbers who can do well in the one-day Classics, and so we could have a good shot."
Bardet has had a good season, too, with third at the Critérium du Dauphiné, sixth overall at the Tour de France and eighth at the Deutschland Tour, but his one-day success stood out, too, with second at Strade Bianche and third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as well as second place at the recent Giro della Toscana.
"It was a bit hard to have the best calendar possible because we don't have a lot of stage races to build up for this event," he said. "I have worked very hard at home, and I've done some good training sessions, and so I'm confident that I have the freshness to be able to play a key role for the team at this event."
Pinot recently finished sixth overall at the Vuelta a España, where he also won two stages. Earlier in the year, he won the Tour of the Alps, which ended in Innsbruck, and took four podium finishes on stages at the Giro d'Italia.
As it's been more than 20 years since France won the title in the elite men's race, Bardet said that having Alaphilippe and Pinot as teammates only strengthens their nation's chances of winning it back, and that tactics between the three would simply be worked out during the race.
"It's always better to have a number of cards to play, especially in the final of such an event," Bardet said. "You never know what will happen at a World Championships. We each have different abilities, and we have to be smart to play it the right way, and to be at the front to be successful."
Like Alaphilippe, Bardet has only ever competed in two World Championships – in Florence, Italy, in 2013 and in Ponferrada, Spain, in 2015 – but he said those courses didn't suit him, and that he was young and used the races to gain experience.
Bardet knows that this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a world title on a course suited to his climbing strengths, but he also said that he wouldn't be disappointed if he or his teammates lost because they've prepared well and, as is the case in every race, there are some things that they can't control.
"You can't be disappointed if you don't win," Bardet said. "You can only be disappointed if you make a big mistake or you don't do everything right before the race.
"Once the race is on, you have to play it 100 per cent and see what happens, but you also have to accept that sometimes at a big race like this, to be successful, there are a lot of factors. You can be in the best shape of your life and use the right tactics, but still lose.
"For sure, we have a big hand to play with the French team, but the World Championships are a special race, and we all need to be at our best to see what happens."
Bardet has been on the cusp of winning the Tour de France on two occasions – second in 2016 and third in 2017 – and he's finished inside the top 10 in three other editions. Even though his focus is mainly on the Tour de France, he said that he has a love for the one-day races, like those that make up the Ardennes Classics, Il Lombardia, and the Worlds.
"I can play on both sides," Bardet said. "It's special to race one-day Classics, and I do like these kinds of events. I'm always a bit more excited about such races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Lombardia or Strade Bianche. They are very special, and I like one-day races, but I can also still be good on the Grand Tours.
"I don't want to only focus my efforts on the Grand Tours. I also want to be a player in the big Classics or the World Championships, especially if the course suits me."