Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) came through his first day in yellow at Paris-Nice with flying colours, but the 24-year-old is well aware that the real test of his credentials begins on stage 6 with the three final days littered with challenges in the mountains.
The Quick-Step Floors climber finished 19th on stage 5 as Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) led home the sprint back into Bourg-de-Peage. The priority for Alaphilippe was to remain safe and sound and to make sure his legs were ready for the days to come.
"Today the main priority was to avoid crashes," Alaphilippe opened with during his post-stage press conference. "It was a lot calmer out there compared to the other days, due to the good weather – at last.
"We controlled the race and were able to count on the help of the sprinters' teams. It was a tense finale, but that's one day ticked off."
Stage 6 sees the race head east with 193.5 kilometres between Aubagne to Fayence and no less than six categorised climbs thrown in. The final ascent to Fayence has been compared to the Mur de Huy of Fleche Wallonne – a race where Alaphilippe has finished second twice in the last two years.
The following day is arguably the toughest concerning the profile, with the peloton set to climb the Col de la Couillole, an ascent where seconds could quickly become minutes. Alaphilippe has a 33-second advantage over compatriot Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal), while Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar), Sergio Henao (Team Sky), Alaphlippe's teammate Dan Martin, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) all sit within 1:31.
So far, the Frenchman has looked unstoppable, but as Richie Porte told Cyclingnews at the start of stage 5, the remaining three days provide a different level of difficulty.
The final stage of the race is far from a parade either, and although the last day lacks a summit finish, there are still five ascents, including the Cote de Peille and Col d'Eze.
"All three stages have their surprises," Alaphilippe said, "and I expect it to be really hard. Tomorrow could go flat out, and the final circuit is pretty tricky too. We could also see a break go clear of guys who are well down on the standings.
"I expect my rivals to try and seize all the opportunities that come their way. Tomorrow another race starts."
When asked if he could go on the offensive, the Frenchman barely hesitated before declaring his intentions.
"Why not? I don't want to be a maillot jaune who is only defensive. If I need to attack in order to defend, that’s what I'll do. It really all depends on my legs."
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