Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) is in no rush to concede his lead at the Tour de France but should the Frenchman crack in the final two days in the Alps, he would like to see compatriot and rival Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) win the race.
"We're not best friends but we see each other at races and in the national team. He's a nice guy and great rider. We respect each other mutually and I think that we're happy to see the other doing well. We are different riders but its super for him, me and cycling in France to have both of us up there. I will give the max up to the end and if I crack I hope that he will win the yellow jersey," Alaphilippe said during his press conference after a tense stage 18 to Valloire.
Alaphilippe will, of course, be hoping that he hangs onto the maillot jaune to Paris and become France's first Tour de France winner since 1985. He's tantalizingly close, too, with just two important stages remaining before the Parisian procession on Sunday. Those two stages contain some of the most brutal climbs of this year's race but the Frenchman came through the first Alpine test relatively unscathed.
He was distanced near the crest of the Galibier and unable to respond when Egan Bernal launched a stinging attack but he saved his jersey thanks to some smart descending and the fact that most of his rivals waited too long before attacking. By the finish in Valloire, the QuickStep rider had lost 32 seconds to Bernal but seen his overall lead cut by just five seconds, with the Colombian marching up the standings into second overall. Nairo Quintana won the stage, Bernal improved his position but Alaphilippe will be more than content having survived the first Alpine test.
Alaphilippe remains cautious over his overall chances of winning the race but there is a growing belief within his squad that he can pull this miracle of miracles. On Thursday his team performed better than many expected with Enric Mas recovering from illness to help on the Galibier, but the support for Alaphilippe started earlier.
"Today I knew it was a hard day but it was hard for everybody. I've had lots of support from teammates who have worked for me and I tip my hat to them because this is not a team for the mountains. Everybody is motivated to give their maximum and give a hand – like Viviani who is a sprinter but helps at the start of a col. He wants to help me. That motivates everybody. I can only give the best of myself and if I crack near the top I don't think I can go faster down a descent than I did today. I saved the jersey."
Stage 19 and 20 will be different tests for the yellow jersey. On stage 18 he could fall back on the knowledge that his descending skills could be brought into play. However, he still had to close the gap to a group that contained Pinot and his other rivals after limiting his losses on the slopes of the Galibier.
"I took risks on the descent. It was very technical but I had to stay calm and I recuperated a dozen seconds or so at the top. I stayed concentrated on each corner and followed the moto. I just stayed on the limit. Then I stayed ahead after I caught the group because I like to descend like that."
It's not just Alaphilippe and his team that are starting to thinking that overall victory is possible but a nation. France has two riders in the top five an unlike in 2014 when two Frenchman stood on the final podium in Paris this time there is a consensus that the Tour de France title is coming home. Alaphilippe and Pinot cannot afford to risk being swept along by the wave of optimism but the QuickStep rider acknowledged that the home support was something he could draw motivation from.
"I try to detach myself from what is happening. Around the yellow, and around what I've done, since the start of the Tour. I know that it's incredible for me. I never imagined that. More than 10 days in yellow with a TT win and stage win, to be among the best on the cols and three days from Paris wearing yellow…
"Of course, I'm aware I'm getting a lot of attention but I don't feel pressure – I am used to having pressure and that motivates me but I'm aware that something is happening with all the eyes of the public on the Tour at the moment. I see it in the peloton and by the roads and with the press – the messages that I get and craziness of guys shouting. I hope it lasts to the end. We all dream of that. But I'm still a realist – today was a big step, but there is still tomorrow and the next day but my discourse is not changing – day by day and I'm proud of what I've done. I've given everything."
Two more days of this and everything that Alaphilippe has given could result in the greatest gift a French rider could give his nation - a home victory.
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