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Julian Alaphilippe repeats rainbow dream and takes aim at Il Lombardia

Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep leads the breakaway during the 2021 Primus Classic
Julian Alaphilippe of Deceuninck-QuickStep leads the breakaway during the 2021 Primus Classic (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Four years have passed since Julian Alaphilippe last lined out at Il Lombardia, placing second behind Vincenzo Nibali, and the Frenchman has seemed to squeeze more into the intervening period than most riders manage in an entire career. Big wins, near misses and grand gestures have punctuated the most intense phase of Alaphilippe’s life. A second successive world title in Leuven 10 days ago was simply the latest flourish.

In both 2018 and 2019, Alaphilippe’s state of fatigue at season’s end was such that he withdrew from Il Lombardia and ended his campaign prematurely. This time out, despite the rigours of wearing the rainbow jersey all year - and despite a bout of illness that kept him off the bike for four days last week - the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider told reporters that he had arrived relatively fresh for the final appointments of his campaign, at Milano-Torino on Wednesday and Il Lombardia on Saturday.

“Yes and no,” Alaphilippe told reporters in a video conference on Tuesday when asked if this had been the most strenuous season of his career. “I remember 2019 being an especially tiring season for me and I was glad to finish it. But right now it’s OK, I feel relatively good and I’m ready to finish it here in Italy. I recovered well after the Worlds, like I’d already recovered well after the Tour de France, when I didn’t do any criteriums. Things like that have left me with the energy to finish the season well. I feel good and motivated.

“Wearing the rainbow jersey all year was already something apart. I had some nice wins, but there were hard moments too, of course. Still, it was a special year that marked my career.”

Alaphilippe began life in the rainbow jersey last October with declassification at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, victory at Brabantse Pijl and a crash at the Tour of Flanders, and there was a similar oscillation between highs and lows throughout 2021. His first year in the rainbow jersey was garlanded by victory at Flèche Wallonne and on the opening day of the Tour de France, but his season was not without its difficulties.

“The start of the season, especially, was difficult, when I was struggling to get back into the swing of things after the Tour de la Provence. That was my first race of the year and I fell ill after it, and I was struggling up until the Classics started,” Alaphilippe said. “The Tour de France started very well for me, but then I struggled a bit towards the finish. But looking back, I’m very happy with how I came through those moments.”

Alaphilippe repeated his previous ambiguity about retaining the world title, confessing that he wouldn’t have been entirely displeased to have been divested of the rainbow jersey in Leuven. He expressed hope that the mantle might rest a little lighter on his shoulders in 2022, even if, in the here and now, nothing about his cycling life has changed. In Italy this week, Alaphilippe’s rear wheel will remain the most precious real estate in the peloton.

“I learned some lessons but I can think about them during the winter. It’s sure that I was prepared to lose the jersey and it would have been a sort of relief, but on the other hand, you obviously start the World Championships aiming to win it,” said Alaphilippe. 

“It was my dream to wear the rainbow jersey for one year and now my dream has come true for a second time. There’ll certainly be things I’ll modify for the coming year, but I’ll decide on that over the winter.

“But now, it hasn’t changed. I’m watched in every race, and I’ll be watched here because I was second in Lombardy before. And so will Remco [Evenepoel] because he was present there last year before his crash. But it’s like that in every race.”

Evenepoel

Remco Evenepoel on the attack at the Coppa Bernocchi

Remco Evenepoel on the attack at the Coppa Bernocchi (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Alaphilippe will form a leadership triumvirate for Deceuninck-QuickStep at Il Lombardia with Evenepoel, an impressive solo winner at the Coppa Bernocchi, and João Almeida, who is riding with the team for the final time before his move to UAE Team Emirates.

Both Alaphilippe and Almeida will warm up for Il Lombardia at Milano-Torino on Wednesday, where the final haul up Superga looks well tailored to each of their abilities. Evenepoel, by contrast, will sit out the mid-week event having raced at both the Giro dell’Emilia and the Coppa Bernocchi in recent days.

“When you don’t suffer in bad weather, I think you’re already in good condition. I think those races helped me a little bit for the self-confidence towards Saturday,” said Evenepoel, who downplayed the idea that there would be any misunderstanding among Deceuninck-QuickStep’s trio of leaders.

“That’s quite difficult to say because it’s going to be quite a hard race,” Evenepoel said when asked to outline the hierarchy. “When one of us doesn’t have the legs to win, we need to be honest with the others. If I don’t have the legs, I’ll tell the guys and I’ll do some work for them, and I think it will be the same in the opposite way.”

Il Lombardia will be just the second Monument of Evenepoel’s career after his crash at last year’s edition of the race ended his season prematurely and ruled him out of the 2021 Spring Classics. With the Race of the Falling Leaves following a new route this year, the descent of the Muro di Sormano does not feature in 2021, and Evenepoel has no plans to visit the scene of his crash during his current stay in Italy.

“No. I don’t go. It would have taken a lot of time to go there, it’s quite difficult to organise something. I think it makes no sense to think too much about that place, that corner, for the upcoming race,” said Evenepoel, who gently dismissed the idea he had a score to settle with the race. 

“If you start the race with the mindset of having to prove something, you can only lose. It’s not like I’m starting there with a feeling of taking revenge or the feeling that I really have to race a good race.”

As in 2020, there were two Monuments on the calendar this October, though neither Alaphilippe nor Evenepoel were in action at the delayed edition of Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. While the world champion expressed his desire to tackle the Hell of the North at some point in his career, Evenepoel was less enthusiastic.

“No, it’s not inspiring me at all. I don’t think I want to go there. I did it once [as a junior – ed.] but one time is enough. You probably won’t see me on the velodrome of Roubaix anymore,” he said, and then grinned: “But never say never…”