The conference call with Julian Alaphilippe was arranged for reporters to discuss Milan-San Remo with the defending champion, but thoughts at Deceuninck-QuickStep have understandably been elsewhere over the past 24 hours in the wake of Fabio Jakobsen’s horrific crash at the Tour de Pologne.
The Dutch champion underwent five and a half hours of facial surgery overnight and he remains in an induced coma, though his condition has been described as stable. Alaphilippe and his teammates will hope for more encouraging reports in the hours and days ahead.
“I was really affected when I saw the crash because it was a long wait to get some news,” Alaphilippe told reporters from Italy on Thursday afternoon. “Everybody was in the same situation – waiting, waiting. You have to stay calm in this situation, but you want to know if he’s OK. It was a really emotional moment. Now we still continue to wait for some good news.
"When it’s a bad crash and it’s your friend, it touches you. For sure, Fabio is fighting a lot now and we have to continue to fight for him also."
Alaphilippe was measured in his discussion of the crash, which was instigated by Dylan Groenewegen’s deviation in the sprint but whose effects were seemingly exacerbated by the layout of a downhill finishing straight in Katowice that has drawn criticism from the professional riders’ union, Cyclistes Professionels Associés (CPA).
“There are some circumstances that I cannot talk about because I was not there,” Alaphilippe said.
“There are a lot of things that can be changed. A lot of people have to be involved in this discussion because it’s too much. It’s not the first time, unfortunately, it’s really bad. I will not talk too much about this, but it’s not only about the finish line, it’s also about the behaviour of the rider. That mentality has to change. Also, for the organisers and for the CPA, there is a lot to do.”
While Jakobsen remains in the intensive care unit in Sosnowiec, the rest of the Deceuninck-QuickStep squad in Poland continued in the Tour de Pologne on Thursday with stage 2. In Italy, Alaphilippe and his five teammates’ there are trying to busy themselves with preparations for Milan-San Remo this weekend, even while their minds are in Poland.
Alaphilippe was asked if it was possible to maintain the necessary focus for La Classicissima in such circumstances.
“We have to,” he said simply.
Alaphilippe made his return to competition on Saturday at Strade Bianche, where he wore the number 1 dossard as defending champion. The Frenchman’s afternoon was blighted by a spate of punctures, and he reached Siena in 24th place, though he sought no excuses either from his misfortune or the searing temperatures.
“I don’t have to look for an excuse, the heat was the same for everybody,” he said. “In the end, I was also proud to finish the race because it was a really hard day.”
In March 2019, Alaphilippe’s victories at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo followed a sustained and successful block of early-season racing. On a calendar hastily revised due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two Italian races are his first competitive outings in over four and a half months and the first public steps on his path towards the Tour de France. The circumstances could hardly be more different, and Alaphilippe expressed no surprise about his performance in Tuscany last Saturday.
“I feel quite good, my form is in crescendo. I’m where I thought I’d be, my form is following the logic of my preparation,” Alaphilippe said. “I expected to feel good but not at my best in my first races. At Strade Bianche, despite my bad luck, I felt that I had good sensations and now I’m here at Milan-San Remo without particular stress but with the desire to do well. The team is built around Sam Bennett, and personally I’ll see how I feel, and I can be important for the team in the final.”
Alaphilippe’s own circumstances are not the only changes to the lie of the land at this novel, summertime edition of Milan-San Remo, where the temperature will be in excess of 30°C, where teams will have to line up with only six riders and where the route has been altered almost entirely save for the traditional finale over the Cipressa and Poggio.
Alaphilippe hasn’t reconnoitred the new ascents of Niella Belbo and Colle di Nava, though he does not envisage a significant alteration to the physiognomy of the race. The reduction in team size will mean a longer shift on the front for key gregario Tim Declercq, but Alaphilippe downplayed the possible impact of the temperature. Although he acknowledged the threat posed by Strade Bianche winner Wout van Aert – “For sure, he can aim to win Milan-San Remo” – he is mindful that as ever, a litany of attackers and sprinters alike will line up for La Classicissima with designs on victory.
The Frenchman suggested that Deceuninck-QuickStep’s own strategy would be based around teeing up Irish champion Sam Bennett for a sprint on the Via Roma but, then again, Alaphilippe lined up ostensibly as co-leader with sprinter Elia Viviani a year ago. Plans are so often redrawn on the hoof on the Poggio.
“It’s a different approach [to last year],” Alaphilippe insisted. “I’m not in the same state of mind or in the same physical condition. The team, like I said, is built mainly around the sprint with Sam Bennett but we’ve got a strong team and we’ll take on our responsibilities during the race and adapt to the eventual scenarios that could unfold, whether it’s a sprint or an attack. We want to try to win again, but as for how, well, we’ll have to see how we organise ourselves.”
Deceuninck-QuickStep for Milan-San Remo: Julian Alaphilippe (Fra), Sam Bennett (Irl), Tim Declercq (Bel), Kasper Asgreen (Den), Bob Jungels (Lux), Zdenek Stybar (Cze).
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