It might not seem particularly useful to describe a stage as a 'Julian Alaphilippe stage', given the term is so widely applicable, but the terrain on the opening road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné did seem well suited to the Frenchman's characteristics.
One of just two stages that aren't overtly crucial to the general classification battle, the journey from Valence to Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert nevertheless packed seven categorized climbs and nearly 3,000 metres of elevation gain into 179 kilometres.
What's more, there was a finishing circuit with two ascents of the Côte du Barrage de Grangent, a 1.3km climb at 4.5 per cent, the last of which topped out with just four kilometres remaining. As if that wasn't enough, the final few hundred metres were a leg-sapping uphill drag.
Julian Alaphilippe duly went on the attack on the final climb and, after the peloton – albeit now a significantly reduced one – came back together ahead of the descent to the final kilometre, he tried again in the sprint, finishing second behind Daryl Impey.
"We thought it was more of a stage for the sprinters, but it was a bit harder than imagined, above all in the finale," Alaphilippe in Saint-Just-Saint-Rambert.
"We tried to protect our sprinter, Fabio Jakobsen all day, but unfortunately he was dropped towards the end, and then it was down to me."
BMC's Dylan Teuns was the first to attack on the final climb but the Belgian faded. Alaphilippe soon made his move and gained much more traction, forcing race leader Michal Kwiatkowski out of the slipstream of his teammates. Along with a second Sky rider in Geraint Thomas, Astana's Michael Valgren, and Alaphilippe's teammate Bob Jungels, they had a gap for a little while but were all reluctant to drive it over the top.
"I knew there'd be attacks on the climb, so I was looking at what was happening," Alaphilippe said. "Teuns did a very explosive acceleration. I preferred to wait a bit and put in my effort a little later, which is what I did with Kwiatkowski in the wheel. The aim afterwards was to stay alert, to do a good descent, because it was a dangerous one."
After more attacks on the descent, including one from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Alaphilippe took on a chaotic, lead-out-free sprint, but was beaten convincingly by Impey.
"In the sprint, I did what I could. It's not the sort of sprint I really like – a lot of movement and very dangerous. Impey came past from behind with a lot of speed, he was faster than me, and I had no chance."
Tour de France in mind
Like many riders at this Critérium du Dauphiné, Alaphilippe has not raced since the Ardennes Classics in late April and has spent the second half of May training at altitude in the Sierra Nevada. It's a well-trodden path to the Tour de France, where the 25-year-old is looking to make up for lost time after missing last year's edition due to a knee injury.
Following a hugely successful first part of the season – in which he won his first major Classic at La Flèche Wallonne along with two stages at the Vuelta al País Vasco and one at the Colombia Oro y Paz – he looks to have begun the second phase on a strong footing, with 17th place in Sunday's prologue preceding his runner-up finish on stage 1.
"I'm reassured of my condition. I haven't raced since Liège and have done a big altitude camp, so the sensations are quite strange. I was eager to come here and race," Alaphilippe said.
"I wasn't disappointed with my time yesterday, and today I was up there, so I'm getting back into it, and it's going well for the moment."
Alaphilippe has made Classics his career priority for the time being but has also shown plenty of stage race promise. He won the Tour of California in 2016 and finished fifth at Paris-Nice last year, while he has previous at the significantly more mountainous Dauphiné, finishing sixth in 2016.
However, with four back-to-back high mountain stages making this the hardest Dauphiné in years, and with an extra week's gap ahead of the Tour, the Frenchman ruled himself out of the fight for the overall title.
"The general classification is not my number one priority. I want to enjoy being here, continuing my preparation. We have Bob for the GC, so let's hope everything goes well for him," Alaphilippe said.
"I'm keeping in mind my objective of timing the top of my form for the Tour de France, and anything that comes at the Dauphiné is a bonus."
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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.
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