Julian Alaphilippe slumped into the space at the back of the Deceuninck-QuickStep van parked just beyond the finish line at the summit of Alto de Colorado, tired after the high-altitude and intense racing and also deeply disappointed after losing the Vuelta a San Juan race leader's jersey.
The Frenchman had started the day in the white jersey, and Deceuninck-QuickStep seemed capable of defending it. However, a superb team performance by Movistar exposed the Belgian team's weaknesses, and Winner Anacona used his early-season form to attack at the bottom of the final climb, stay away, win the stage and take the race lead.
"Of course it would have been nice to keep the jersey, but it's over. The team did a good job, but Movistar was really strong and raced smart," Alaphilippe said after wiping the fatigue off his face and quickly debriefing with his teammates.
He was not afraid to reveal what went wrong and what put the team on the defensive on the gradual climb up that was exposed to cross, tail and even head winds as it rose to an altitude of 2,656 metres.
"We had to be careful about Anacona attacking, and unfortunately he jumped hard when Remco was a little bit behind in the bunch and it was too late to catch him," Alaphilippe said.
"After that we decided to keep the speed and chase, but it wasn't enough to keep the jersey. That's racing. Remco still has his best young rider's jersey and he was strong. It would have been better if he'd got on Anacona's wheel and sat there, but's he young and has to learn things, he's been strong all week."
Evenepoel admitted his mistake, but he gave his all trying to drag the lead group back up to Anacona and the two Medellin riders who finished with him to take second and third. Alaphilippe attacked to try to force a faster chase with 2.5km to go but was closely marked by Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and his brother Dayer, who this year rides for Neri-Selle Italia.
"It was a difficult situation for me," Alaphilippe said. "I had the leaders' jersey, while Quintana had Anacona up front and was going for the race lead. All my enemies wanted to stay on my wheel and I was tired.
Racing into thin air
Anacona lives and trains at altitude, but Alaphilippe admitted he struggle in the thin air in the final kilometres of the stage. The Alto Colorado tops out at 2,565m, higher than most mountain finishes in Europe.
"You can feel it," Alaphilippe said, without using it as an excuse. "I really felt it when I attacked to close the gap. After 30 seconds I was completely tired. It was difficult to recover, and I did the last two kilometres full gas but I was empty."
Deceuninck-QuickStep will try to defend Evenepoel's green jersey and try to win the final two flat stages with sprinter Alvaro Hodeg. Alaphilippe tried to see his glass half full after a successful season debut in San Juan.
I've got good memories after winning two stages in one week, especially in my first race of the season," he said. "For sure it's a good week for my form, and my next goals in Colombia and in Italy in March."
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