Ahead of the 2021 UCI Road World Championships elite road races, Cyclingnews is taking a deep dive into the key teams.
France is third on the roll of honour of the elite men’s road race, but the nation’s haul of nine world titles – Georges Speicher (1933), Antonin Magne (1936), Louison Bobet (1954), André Darrigade (1959), Jean Stablinski (1962), Bernard Hinault (1980), Luc Leblanc (1994), Laurent Brochard (1997) and Julian Alaphilippe (2020) – is some way behind the 19 claimed by Italy and the 26 won by Belgium.
French cycling’s historically Tour de France-centric view of the world probably didn’t help, particularly when the Worlds used to take place in its old, late summer slot. After La Grande Boucle, the stars of the French peloton usually spent August on the post-Tour criterium circuit and arrived at the Worlds with little left in the tank. It was perhaps not entirely a coincidence that Hinault’s remarkable Sallanches triumph came at the end of a summer where his Tour had been ended prematurely by injury.
And yet, France’s record only deteriorated when the Worlds shifted to Autumn following the calendar reforms of 1995, with Brochard the country’s lone rainbow jersey until Alaphilippe bridged that lengthy gap in Imola last year. Alaphilippe’s win, incidentally, came just a week after the finish of the pandemic-posted 2020 Tour, when another man ‘fresh’ from the race, Guillaume Martin, played a key roll in teeing up his winning attack.
- Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R-Citroën)
- Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
- Christophe Laporte (Cofidis)
- Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ)
- Clement Russo (Arkéa-Samsic)
- Florian Sénéchal (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
- Anthony Turgis (Team TotalEnergies)
As in Imola and Yorkshire, it’s (almost) all about Alaphilippe. The reigning world champion is the undisputed leader of the French team, and national coach Thomas Voeckler’s plan A will revolve around delivering Alaphilippe safely to the final two laps on the Leuven circuit.
Alaphilippe has shown flashes of brilliance in the rainbow jersey, not least when he claimed the opening stage of the Tour de France and enjoyed a stint in yellow for the third succession season. He raced with ambition on all terrains across the spring, winning Flèche Wallonne, though a good classics campaign fell just short of being a great one when he was denied an Ardennes double at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where Tadej Pogačar produced an upset in the sprint.
A couple of weeks later, Alaphilippe sprang a surprise of his own when he opted not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics. As in 2020, he sparkled on the opening weekend of the Tour but made less of an impression as the race wore on, but he has given the appearances of a man building steadily towards these Worlds in recent weeks. After a break from competition following the Clasica San Sebastian, he returned to take second at the Bretagne Classic and a string of placings at the Tour of Britain, where he was third overall. He signed off on a year in the rainbow jersey with an aggressive showing at the Primus Classic, where he helped to set up Deceuninck-QuickStep teammate Florian Sénéchal’s victory.
Unlike last year’s Worlds, however, where the rainbow jersey was always liable to be decided on the final lap of the tough Imola course, this year’s race – which toggles between the ‘Flanders’ and ‘Leuven’ circuits – is rather more open to interpretation. This Worlds road race might well be contested in the manner of a Flemish Classic, where being represented in the front group is always of such pivotal importance.
Voeckler may thus be minded to give a certain freedom of movement to men like Sénéchal, Valentin Madouas and Cosnefroy, who has been mining a rich seam of form in recent weeks. The AG2R-Citroën man beat Alaphilippe to the line at the Bretagne Classic and also took a fine bronze medal at the European Championships. Alaphilippe may be among the few riders who could realistically go toe to toe with Wout van Aert, but that won’t prevent France from seeking opportunities to outflank the home favourite. Arnaud Démare and, particularly, the on-form Christophe Laporte present options in the event of a sprint.
In Alaphilippe, France boast one of the very top contenders for the rainbow jersey and, like Van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel (Netherlands), his wide array of talents mean that he has the ability to win this race from a variety of different scenarios. Like Peter Sagan in 2016 and 2017, meanwhile, Alaphilippe might also benefit from the assurance that comes with being world champion. He may be putting his title on the line, but in some ways, he has less to lose than riders who have yet to land the greatest prize in one-day racing. No matter what happens on Sunday, the rainbow bands will remain on his sleeves for the rest of his career.
Alaphilippe’s standing means that there isn’t likely to be any tension over the leadership hierarchy in the build-up to the race, and Voeckler’s squad also demonstrated a notably united front of support of the Deceuninck-QuickStep man last year. This time out, Alaphilippe’s status could also create opportunities for enterprising teammates to test the waters from further out. The form of Cosnefroy is a plus for Voeckler, as is Anthony Turgis' track record in this corner of the world.
Anything can happen in a sprint after 260km, as Alaphilippe can attest from the past two editions of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but the Tour of Britain underlined just how difficult it will be to beat Van Aert on the false flat finale on Geldenaaksevest.
The French team does include two other fast finishers in Christophe Laporte and Arnaud Démare, but it remains to be seen if either man has the wherewithal to survive the 42 climbs that punctuate Sunday’s route. Démare has struggled to replicate his 2020 form in this campaign and while Laporte impressed in winning the GP de Wallonie recently and placing second at Dwars door Vlaanderen in March, it is hard to envisage him out-pacing riders like Van Aert, Van der Poel and Sonny Colbrelli (Italy) in a group sprint on Sunday.
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