For the second time in a fortnight, Julian Alaphilippe begins all over again from a familiar place. Two weeks ago, he won atop the Mur de Huy on the opening stage of the Tour de Wallonie only to test positive for COVID-19 a day later. On Sunday, the world champion returns to the fray in the very city where he won that title when he lines out at the Tour of Leuven.
“It’s going to be bizarre to race there on Sunday, especially with such different sensations to last year at the Worlds. It will be a hard race, but I’m looking forward to seeing how I feel,” Alaphilippe told reporters in a video call on Friday afternoon.
The Tour of Leuven was a late addition to Alaphilippe’s programme as he seeks to bank race days ahead of the Vuelta a España. Indeed, his recent COVID-19 diagnosis was in keeping with the tenor of a season blighted by ill fortune. Illness had already hampered the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl rider’s Classics campaign even before his horrific crash at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Although Alaphilippe recovered in time to race the French Championships in late June, his condition did not allow him to line out at the Tour de France. Victory amid the friendly confines of the Mur de Huy two weeks ago suggested a corner had been turned only for Alaphilippe to be laid low by COVID-19 and compelled to start all over again.
“Not every year is the same. I’d had a few seasons in a row at a high level, without big setbacks and with good results. This year I haven’t had the wind at my back, so I’ve had to adapt,” said Alaphilippe. “Things haven’t gone how I’d have liked, but you have to take it as it comes. But there’s still the end of the season to come, with the World Championships and Il Lombardia. I hope the season will finish better than it started.”
After racing in the city of his greatest triumph on Sunday, Alaphilippe will return to the site of his first victory next week when he lines out at the Tour de l’Ain for the first time in eight years. As a callow 22-year-old, he beat Dan Martin to the line on the final stage in Arbent in 2014 to land the maiden win of his professional career.
“It’s strange to come back, but I’m also happy to do so because I don’t always have the chance to ride French races close to where I’m from,” Alaphilippe said. “It’s nice to come back to my roots, but it will be three intense days of racing too.”
Intensity is precisely what Alaphilippe is lacking after a staccato 2022 campaign. Although his victory on the Mur de Huy suggested his sharpness had not been unduly blunted by his long stint at altitude in Livigno in July, he has since spent a week or so off the bike following his COVID-19 diagnosis. His ambitions for Leuven and the Tour de l’Ain are accordingly modest.
“I was ill, I was really flattened. The symptoms have gone now but I can feel that I’m still a bit tired. I haven’t been incredible the last few days in training,” Alaphilippe said. “I have morale and desire, even if physically I don’t know how I’m going. I’ll make the efforts and then the race will give me some answers.
“On Sunday and the Tour de l’Ain, I’ll be able to put in some big efforts ahead of the Vuelta, without thinking about a result or a performance. I just want to enjoy it and see how I feel after having had COVID-19.”
It remains to be seen what Alaphilippe can achieve at the Vuelta, where he lines out in a QuickStep-AlphaVinyl squad led by Remco Evenepoel, such a dominant winner of the Clasica San Sebastian last week. “At the Vuelta, we want to do a good race as a team. And I want to be in the action at the Vuelta and have better sensations than in the last week,” Alaphilippe said.
His lone previous Vuelta appearance in 2017, of course, preceded a sparkling run of late season form, including a near miss at the Bergen Worlds and second place at Il Lombardia. If nothing else, this Vuelta should help Alaphilippe build condition ahead of the World Championships in Wollongong, though he insisted that he had given little thought to winning a record-equalling third successive rainbow jersey.
“The Worlds are part of my end-of-season objectives but I’m not thinking about the three-in-a-row at all. I just want to get back to being in full possession of my means; I want to be able to be offensive and to enjoy being on the bike,” Alaphilippe said. “Speaking about performances or results at the Vuelta or Worlds is hard. For me, that’s all still a long way off. I’ll race Sunday and next week, and I’ll take things as they come.
“If I can get to my best level, back to 100%, for at least one day between here and the end of the season, I’d be very happy. That would be mission accomplished for me.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.