Julian Alaphilippe doesn't dare to dream. The moment he does, the spell might wear off. What he's going to do is fight, all the way to Paris at the end of this week.
As he pointed out, he's already in dreamland. "I could never have imagined this," Alaphilippe said, the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider taking a seat in a packed press conference as the leader of the Tour de France on the final rest day.
"It was the same last year," he added, referring to the polka-dot jersey and the two stages he won on the 2018 Tour. "I could never have imagined that either."
In the past couple of years, Alaphilippe has been pushing the boundaries of his potential, and the process has been turbo-charged in the past fortnight. Classics, sprints, punchy climbs, high mountains, breakaways… now time trials and even Grand Tours. We're at the point where it's hard to see if there are any boundaries left at all.
After he came through the Pyrenees with the yellow jersey still on his shoulders, he has to be considered a potential Tour de France winner. One day, at least. The big question, as the race pauses for the final time before screaming to a climax in the Alps, is whether it might just be this year.
"I don't know if it's realistic, because I'm not asking myself the question," Alaphilippe said, refusing to get carried away with the fervent home media and indeed with the country as a whole.
"I'm very happy with what I've done so far. Every day has just been an added bonus for a little while now, but I want it to continue, so I'm going to give everything right until the end."
Wearing the yellow jersey, he says, has been a "great honour", and indeed he himself has honoured the yellow jersey on its 100th anniversary. "For sure it gives me extra power," he said, evoking his compatriot Thomas Voeckler's extraordinary run in yellow eight years ago. "It pushes me even more".
Can it push him all the way? The same question, phrased differently each time, kept coming his way.
"I'm just continuing as in the past two weeks, taking each day as it comes and enjoying it," he said. "It's an honour to be the yellow jersey in the Tour, so we changed our plan and are now defending it. I'm giving everything every day. I'm not going in breakaways now – I'm riding like the leader of the Tour de France. I don't know what will happen next but for sure I will continue to defend the jersey.
"As we get closer to Paris, the more the feeling is different, the more it's special. But I'm realistic with regards to the difficult stages coming up. The hardest part is still ahead. I don't want to dream, but I'm going to give it everything."
Alaphilippe's caution is understandable. He was never meant to be in this position, he expended a great deal of energy putting himself in yellow in the first place, he betrayed first signs of weakness on Sunday, and the hardest stages are still ahead of him.
After the rest day, two largely flat stages take the race to the Alps for three days in the high mountains that will decide once and for all. On Thursday, it's the Col de Vars, Col d'Izoard, and Col du Galibier before the descent to Valloire. On Friday, it's the Madeleine and the Iseran ahead of the summit finish at Tignes. On Saturday, it's the Cormet de Roselend and the interminable ascent to Val Thorens. That's seven climbs of hors-categorie or category-1 status, and six peaks that puncture the 2000-metre altitude barrier. It's a brute of a finale.
Alaphilippe leads the race by 1:35 over 2018 champion Geraint Thomas, with Steven Kruijswijk third at 1:47, Thibaut Pinot fourth at 1:50, Egan Bernal fifth at 2:02, and Emmanuel Buchmann sixth at 2:14.
"1:30 is, at the same time, quite a lot and nothing at all. All it takes is one moment of weakness. When you see the profiles of the final stages, 1:30 is almost nothing," Alaphilippe warned.
"So it's all to play for, but the jersey is on my shoulders and those who want to take it off me know what they have to do."
As for who he considers to be his most dangerous rivals, "Pinot has shown he's in exceptional form in the mountains, and his team is strong. I think he'll keep attacking and racing offensively to shake things up.
"Ineos have two riders in Bernal and Thomas. Kruijswijk is really strong and also has strong teammates. I cannot say one guy is better than the others. They have different things to do, and I hope they do them."
Bring it on, in other words.
"There's not one thing in particular that scares me," he added. "Everyone knows what's coming, everyone knows it will be hard. The Alps will be crucial in deciding the winner of the Tour. I've done my recons, I know what awaits me."
No room for dreaming, but France is already doing that for him.
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