Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is dominating the conversation so much at this Tour de France that he is now articulating both sides of the argument over his prospects of a high overall finish in Paris. In one breath, the Frenchman can speak hopefully of holding the maillot jaune beyond the Pyrenees and into the third week. In the next, he carefully reminds his audience that he has already expended more energy than most in the opening phase of this race.
"Everything is possible," Alaphilippe said during his rest day press conference in Albi when asked if he could defend his lead until the end of the second week. "For now, I'm happy to recover well today. I'll be happy to ride the stage tomorrow with the maillot jaune. If everything goes well, that will make it one day more."
Ever since Alaphilippe first took yellow at Épernay on stage 3, he has faced questions about his chances of emulating Thomas Voeckler's 2011 adventure and holding the overall lead deep into the race, or perhaps even conjuring up a modern version of Cyrille Guimard's surprising, sustained challenge to Eddy Merckx in 1972.
Just about every day since, Alaphilippe has produced a startling new feat of strength that has only heightened speculation about just how much further he can go on this race. His solo raid at Épernay was followed by a stirring showing on the dirt road atop La Planche des Belles Filles. After attacking forcefully to regain the yellow jersey at Saint-Étienne on Saturday, he played a pivotal role in tearing the peloton apart in the crosswinds at Albi two days later.
There is nothing, it seems, that the 27-year-old from Montluçon cannot do.
"My Tour is already a success," Alaphilippe said. "I've never felt so good. I'm still quite fresh. I hope to surprise myself. Everything is possible, you never know. I'm taking things as they come. The longer I keep the jersey, the longer the dream continues."
A year ago, Alaphilippe was already acclaimed as the chouchou of the home fans after the all-action display that yielded two stage victories and the polka dot jersey of best climber. His remarkable displays to this point – which follow a spring that yielded wins at Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and Flèche Wallonne – have elevated his celebrity still further.
"The yellow jersey, it's special," Alaphilippe said. "Your country gets excited and dreams. What I've achieved is above and beyond my hopes. I'm going to continue to ride to defend and honour it."
Alaphilippe holds a lead of 1:12 over defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) in the overall standings, with his teammate Egan Bernal a further four seconds back in third. After Monday's Deceuninck-QuickStep-orchestrated chaos in Albi, only four other riders are within two minutes of the yellow jersey as the Tour reaches its midway point.
"I'm starting to look at the time gap to him and thinking, 'Gee, that's getting a little bit much now,'" said Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), who lies ninth overall. "He's got 2:09 on me now, and maybe he takes a bit more time on me in the time trial. It could be three minutes before we hit the mountains, and I'm getting a little bit nervous about that."
On current form, Alaphilippe will be fancied to hold his jersey on the Tour's first visit to the Pyrenees on Thursday, when the climb of Hourquette d'Ancizan is followed by a drop to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. He was bullish, meanwhile, about his prospects in the stage 13 time trial in Pau, thanks to his strong showing in a similar test at Critérium du Dauphiné last month.
"In my head, I'm imagining setting out as the last man off," Alaphilippe said. "I've progressed a lot in the time trial, I've worked a lot. It's not my preferred discipline, but with this route, I hope I can surprise myself."
The Tour has yet to climb above 1,500 metres, but if Alaphilippe survives the first day in the Pyrenees and then fends off Thomas et al in Pau, home enthusiasm at his overall chances will increase exponentially. For now, he has the first world problem of being asked to explain to Le Grand Public why he cannot win the Tour.
"The hardest is still to come," Alaphilippe said. "You shouldn't mix wearing the yellow jersey for a week with wearing it on the podium on the Champs-Élysées. Up to now, I've expended a lot of energy, whether it was to attack or to get the jersey back. The rider who wins the Tour will be a rider who has started well but still has a lot of freshness. I hope to surprise myself, I'm hoping to do more nice things, but I'm not dreaming."
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