The rainbow jersey can inspire or it can inhibit, but few riders have ever been unchanged by the experience of wearing it. Julian Alaphilippe's aggressive start to the 2021 season suggests a man eager to live up to his status as world champion, but he maintains that it is simply in keeping with the approach that carried him to the title in the first place.
"For me, the best way to honour this jersey is to stay true to what I've always been. True to my style of racing, to the way I got this jersey, which was by attacking and going on the offensive," Alaphilippe told reporters on Thursday evening.
"Since the beginning of the season, I've shown the jersey. I still haven't won, but I'm happy to race in the same way I did when I went looking for this jersey. I'll obviously have to calculate a bit more in certain races, but I'm taking a lot of pleasure from racing at the moment."
Alaphilippe signalled his intentions for the year with a surprise attack midway through the opening stage of the Tour de la Provence and he continued in the same nonchalant, almost reckless spirit at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad last week, punching clear alone on the Berendries with more than 30km remaining. The attack won him the admiration of Eddy Merckx, but it never truly looked like a winning move, and he was caught at the base of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Deceuninck-QuickStep always have another option on Flemish roads, of course, and Davide Ballerini duly prevailed in the group sprint in Ninove.
"It was a bit on instinct that I decided to try from distance because I didn't have the great, great legs needed to win alone and there was a lot of headwind in the finale, so even if I'd waited to attack on the Muur, I don't think I'd have been able to hold on to the line," Alaphilippe said. "I'm happy to have played that role for the team. It was perfect like that. Going forward, I might change some small things in my style of riding, but I'll see how it goes."
Alaphilippe's mindset seems unlikely to change unduly this weekend when he lines out at Strade Bianche, a breathless sort of an event that almost demands to be raced on the front foot. "It's important to have a good start and be careful with the early breakaway," he said. "Then, in the end, it's a really hard race. It's with the legs, eh." In other words, manna for the man who wasn't born to follow.
"It's a really beautiful race, always spectacular. It's maybe not a Monument but it deserves to be," said Alaphilippe, who won Strade Bianche at the first attempt in 2019 but endured a trying afternoon in the hills around Siena in last year's rescheduled event, when he suffered no fewer than six punctures.
Strade Bianche will also bring Alaphilippe face to face with Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) for the first time since they swapped turns in the decisive break at the Tour of Flanders last October, when the Frenchman's challenge was ended after he clipped a motorbike and broke his hand in the ensuing fall.
Van der Poel's long-range attack at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne echoed Alaphilippe's effort at Omloop 24 hours earlier, and while Van Aert has yet to race on the road in 2021, the white smoke – or at least, the Strava data – emanating from his training camp at Mount Teide suggest that he is ready to defend his Strade Bianche title on Saturday.
"They are two of the big favourites, that's clear," Alaphilippe said. "You can see the shape of Van der Poel from the last couple of races. And with Van Aert, he won last year and he's really strong. Even if this is his first race, he can still win. From my side, I'm just happy to take the start on Saturday with a big motivation. We have to be smart. It's a really hard race and the legs will talk."
Two years ago, the Strade Bianche victory marked the beginning of a remarkable Italian fortnight for Alaphilippe, who proceeded to rattle off two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo. Indeed, it was the ignition point for one of the most astonishing seasons in recent memory, as Alaphilippe went on to win Flèche Wallonne and two stages of the Tour de France, where he also placed fifth overall after wearing the yellow jersey for two weeks.
"I feel good, but I don't feel in the same condition as when I won Strade Bianche, two stages of Tirreno and Milan-San Remo. That was a great period for me, it was a state where my confidence and condition were really top," said Alaphilippe.
Earlier in the call, he had suggested that superlatives about his early-season form should be toned down. "I'm not flying on the bike. I'm just enjoying myself," Alaphilippe said. "I'm happy to have good sensations, but I can't wait to win."
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