A week or so ago, after winning the Brabantse Pijl in the rainbow jersey, Julian Alaphilippe pleaded not to be named as a favourite for the Tour of Flanders. Less than 48 hours out from the big day, however, the world champion and his Elegant-QuickStep team seemed less worried about playing down his chances.
Alaphilippe, for a start, has been given the team's top race number, wearing 11 ahead of a 12 to 17 roster that includes decorated cobbled Classics riders in Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar, Kasper Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal.
When the team gathered for a pre-race press conference on Friday afternoon, Alaphilippe was seated front and centre, flanked by Stybar and Lampaert, with Asgreen in the back row alongside Gent-Wevelgem runner-up Sénéchal, domestique Tim Declercq and Dries Devenyns. The latter's presence itself was telling. Devenyns is Alaphilippe's closest ally – his right-hand man in the Ardennes and the Tour de France – and wouldn't be here unless his leader was.
In short, this is not, as we might have been led to believe a short while ago, a case of a newbie tagging along for the experience. It's a newbie leading the world's best Classics team into their most important battle of the season.
"When you look at me, physically, for sure I'm not a real Flandrien," Alaphilippe admitted with a smile. "But I love the really hard races. It's a Monument, and I know what that represents for me, for the team, and for cycling. It's a big rendezvous.
"I've been thinking about it for several days now. It's a race I've followed on TV, and one I've always wanted to do. I'm really, really motivated for it. I've got my heart set on doing a great race and going after the best possible result. It's a good feeling. It's just a pleasure to discover the Tour of Flanders with the rainbow jersey on my shoulders and as part of a team that can play such a big role in the race."
Asked more directly if victory was on his mind, Alaphilippe added: "It's my first participation, I've got no experience in the Flandrien Classics. I'm expecting a difficult race but that's also why I want to discover it. I want to give my all and go for the best result possible. I hope I can show the jersey at the front of the race."
Alaphilippe, who launched a decisive attack on the new, steep cobbled climb at Brabantse Pijl, had his first taste of the cobbles and bergs of the Flemish Ardennes this week, checking out most of the 244km parcours across training rides on Wednesday and Thursday.
"I can't even tell you the names of all the climbs in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and I've done that five times," was his riposte when asked by a Flemish journalist about his knowledge of the 17 hellingen on the route.
"I was happy to be out there, feeling the cobblestones under my wheels, and getting a feel for where I'll need to be well positioned. That's the important stuff, rather than remembering the names of the climbs."
He did, however, have two to hand: the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg. These are tackled twice in combination – the second time as the finale ahead of the 13km run-in to Oudenaarde.
"The Kwaremont-Paterberg is the sequence that I really tried to take in. That part will be vital."
The numbers game
The vast majority of the questions at the press conference were directed towards the world champion. Even the ones that weren't nevertheless mostly concerned him.
Team manager Patrick Lefevere, standing at the back, was asked about Alaphilippe's status in his team, which has won seven of the past 15 editions of the Ronde. Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert and Niki Terpstra may have all moved on, but Stybar, Lampaert and Asgreen have all won major cobbled races.
"We cannot be too euphoric," Lefevere said. "It's his first time, he has no experience, but he has experienced guides. We specifically put Dries in the team to lead Julian as far as he can.
"But let's not forget we have other aces up our sleeve who can ride the final as well, and who can win. The team is known for its loyalty and we can win with different riders. Hopefully on Sunday we're in a position where we can win. It would be great if it's Julian, but I wouldn't be sad if it were one of the other six boys."
The ever-improving Sénéchal, winner of Le Samyn last year, seemed to rise up the pecking order with his Gent-Wevelgem podium last Sunday, but appeared to acknowledge his compatriot's greater status.
"I'm very happy to be out there with Julian. We're motivated 100 per cent. Me, Dries, Tim, Yves, Styby… we know the roads by heart, a bit better than Julian for sure, but we're going to stick together and we're going to get Julian to where he needs to be," Sénéchal said.
"As for the finale, it will be the legs that talk, and Julian's legs are at 100 per cent – he has the jersey to prove that."
For his part, Alaphilippe echoed what has become the Belgian team's mantra during the Classics period – the idea that it doesn't matter who the winner is, as long as he's wearing a Deceuninck-QuickStep jersey – or an Elegant-QuickStep one in this case.
"The ideal scenario for us is never to be in a bad situation – to always be able to play with the others. We have a really strong team, so we have to be focused on what we have to do, but also be able to change the plan during the race," Alaphilippe said.
"Of course, our goal is for there to be as many off us as possible in the finale of the race. After that, it's about the legs. We have confidence in ourselves to give the maximum and not have any regrets – that's the most important thing.
"It would be super nice to win," he added, "whichever of us it may be."
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