France's Julian Alaphilippe had nothing short of a fantastic season in 2018: a stage win at the Oro y Paz in Colombia, two stage wins at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, followed two weeks later by victory at Flèche Wallonne, and then a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and two more stage wins at the Tour de France, where he also won the polka-dot jersey.
Just a week after the Tour, the 26-year-old won the Clasica San Sebastian, and then took a stage win and the overall title at both the Tour of Britain and the Tour of Slovakia in September.
It was natural, therefore, that Alaphilippe's name should crop up among the top favourites for the UCI Road World Championships road race in Innsbruck, Austria, later that month: a punchy parcours, with a sting in the tail in the shape of the Höttinger Höll climb – just 2.9km in length, but with gradients of up to 28 per cent, and the sort of climb that you might expect Alaphilippe to push a little harder on the pedals and skip away to victory on, just as he had at Flèche Wallonne in April, getting the better of defending champion and five-time Flèche winner Alejandro Valverde.
The reality in Innsbruck on September 30 was quite different, as Alaphilippe relayed to French sports newspaper L'Equipe in a recent interview.
"Everyone expected me to win at the Worlds," Alaphilippe said. "You have to detach yourself from that kind of pressure, but at the same time, try to use it.
"At the start of the last climb, everything was perfect," he said. "We were climbing quickly, although I was maybe the worst climber of the three of us" – French national teammates Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, who were also both still in contention – "but the goal was to just try to stay at the front, and I couldn't.
"That climb was so hard," Alaphilippe told L'Equipe. "I can't really describe it. I started to get dropped even before the section at 28 per cent. It was hard to keep pedalling, as I was cramping like I never had before. It was as though it was the culmination of a long, hard season, as well as the length of the race. I've never ridden a race as difficult as that: there was nowhere really to recover, other than on the descent where you were reaching speeds of 90 kph."
Alaphilippe described watching the world title ride away from him – a title that for so long he'd felt was within reach.
"It was hard to accept that I couldn't follow," he continued. "Physically, I was in immense pain. I'm used to going into the 'red zone', and staying there, but this time I had to go beyond that, and I couldn't. On a 28 per cent gradient, you're zig-zagging your way up the climb, breathing through your ears. I had only one thing on my mind: getting to the finish and going home."
"Sorry," was all Alaphilippe could tell his national squad teammates afterwards – unwarranted and unnecessary, perhaps, but heartfelt and honest.
Behind the winner and new world champion Valverde, it was silver for France thanks to Bardet – a rival at AG2R La Mondiale during the rest of the season. Alaphilippe took eighth place, 43 seconds down.
He will now refresh and regroup with his equally hungry, self-styled 'Wolfpack' teammates at Quick-Step Floors – or Deceuninck-QuickStep, as they'll be next season – ready to hit the ground running following a season that has seen the Belgian WorldTour team net 73 victories in 2018.
They may have lost Tour of Flanders winner Niki Terpstra and sprinter Fernando Gaviria, who won two stages at this year's Tour, but they've gained junior road race and time trial world champion Remco Evenepoel, and will likely usher forth up-and-coming riders such as Fabio Jakobsen in 2019.
Patrick Lefevere's men will likely be as strong as ever, and next season may prove to be even more fruitful for Julian Alaphilippe.
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