Julian Alaphilippe has again warned he may not have the same success in this year's Tour de France as he enjoyed in 2019 but immediately identified Sunday’s hilly second stage around Nice as his first goal.
The French Deceuninck-QuickStep rider won two stages, wore the leader’s yellow jersey for two weeks and lit up the race until suffering in the final mountain stages last year. When the 2020 route was announced last October, Alaphilippe quickly realised it was perhaps too mountainous for him and that he would never again have the same form as in 2019.
The death of his father in the early summer and the COVID-19 lockdown has also blunted his form. However speaking during the Deceuninck-QuickStep video press conference in Nice, he still promised to be aggressive.
"It's a bit of a relief for me. I think it's a natural decision. I don't think I'm made to go for the GC in the Tour de France," he said when asked by Cyclingnews about his Tour goals.
"Last year I was really close, even if it wasn't my goal but now, if you consider my shape and my team, we're not focused on the GC.
"Last year was special for me, unforgettable even: a Tour to cherish. I never expected that we would ride such a Tour. Now we start again from scratch, a new season, a new Tour. I am always ambitious when I am at the start of a race, and the Tour certainly gives extra motivation. But I don't want to do much looking ahead yet."
The French media and public are desperate to see Alaphilippe attack the Tour de France again this year but he seems able to deflect the expectation.
"I'm not frustrated about not doing GC. It's natural for me to go for stages and to do something good with my teammates. That's our goal. We're not here to win the Tour," he said.
"I'll be aggressive like always."
Deceuninck-QuickStep will target Saturday's opener on flatter roads in the high country of Nice with sprinter Sam Bennett. Sunday seems more for Alaphilippe.
The 186km stage includes 4000 metres of climbing, with the Col d'Eze and the Col des Quatre Chemins in the final 50km. The race is expected to explode on the climbs and the descents, with the finish on the Promenade des Anglais just two kilometres from the end of the descent. In theory, Alaphilippe could also take the yellow jersey but that is a secondary, distant thought in 2020.
"It's really important to start well and see how I feel. I want to try to do a really good stage on Sunday because it will be difficult," Alaphilippe said.
"With those 4,000 vertical metres, who knows, that might be an opportunity for me. Much will also depend on the weather. Rain is forecast on the weekend, which may also play a role. In the end, I will only know more about how the legs feel and how I will approach the further course of the Tour on Sunday evening."
While Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet seem weighed down by French expectation, Alaphilippe appears to thrive on it.
He is not looking forward to empty mountain finishes, with crowds limited and obliged to wear face masks to reduce the risk of the COVID-19 virus spreading around the country and the Tour de France peloton.
"I have unforgettable memories of this crowd supporting me last year, so imagine climbing the passes with maximum effort and seeing the deserted roads, that will be strange," he said.
"It's like a football match with an empty stadium, it's the same thing. It's a shame, the public is part of cycling but it is important to respect the instructions. We're isolated and even staying in a single room. There are lots of rules to follow, that's what makes the Tour so different this year."
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