On one hand, the reigning World Champion Julian Alaphilippe remains as hungry as ever to win. On the other, the Frenchman now insists that he spent much of 2021 learning how to handle the immense increase in expectations that inevitably surrounds any wearer of the coveted rainbow jersey.
In 2022, Alaphilippe told the media during the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl press day in Spain, he aims to put that lesson in public pressure to the best use possible. Particularly as those performance expectations received a massive boost last September in Belgium after Alaphilippe soloed to victory in cycling's biggest one day race for a second straight year.
"The thing I learned the most as World Champion in 2021 was how to enjoy myself without putting too much pressure on myself," Alaphilippe explained. "I always want to perform, I always want to be at 100 per cent. I don't want to disappoint my teammates, myself or my supporters."
"But I've learned that I have to accept that even if I'm World Champion, I can't win every race I want and when I do lose, I have to learn from that for the future."
The 29-year-old recognised that staying motivated to win was one big key to future success, "because otherwise, it's a bit complicated to continue at the highest level.
"So I always want to improve and take on some new challenges like the Flemish Classics (in 2021). That's what keeps me on my toes."
Balancing the desire for victories with the recognition that it's not always possible to win only makes sense if those goals that are not feasible are eliminated or shelved. Hence Alaphilippe is wiping the Tour of Flanders from his 2022 program for the first time since 2019 and focussing more strongly on the Ardennes.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Monument in which he's twice claimed second on two different finishes, will be a major goal during his program in 2022.
"It's going to be the centre of the first half of my season," Alaphilippe said.
"It's one of the races that suits me the best and which I've never won. So I'm really motivated for that. I liked both finales [the uphill at Ans and the traditional flatter one in central Liège] because in either you need a really strong finish."
Win or lose in Wallonia in April, Alaphilippe's need to manage expectations will likely be put to a fiercer test on home soil come July.
His fifth place in the 2019 Tour de France after nearly two weeks in yellow still remains fresh in the memory of local fans and winning at least one stage every year since 2018 has helped maintain his high profile in France's Grand Tour as well.
Factor in wearing the rainbow jersey for a second year running and no matter how unrealistic the hopes he could become the country's first outright home winner in nearly four decades, they will likely burn fiercely again this summer.
In terms of a potential Tour de France GC bid, the Frenchman is having none of it. Or at least, nothing on that score that he's willing to share with the general public at this point in the season, barring the promise to go for a stage win. Again, it's all about achievable goals.
"I think at this moment in time, it's day by day at the Tour. But I have to work hard to be ready, and the recon will be important to try to see which stage can be really good for me," Alaphilippe said.
"The thing we can say now is we don't have the team to fight for GC. So if I can perform well [in the GC] I will try to do it, but the main goal is to win for a stage with the sprinters and with the team as a team. We certainly aren't starting the Tour planning to fight for the GC victory."
Does that mean that if he was in a different team, he could fight for the overall?
"I don't know, it could be I will have to try in the future. But for sure not this year," he said.
"It's a question people always ask me, and I would like to have a nice reply, but in the end I'm honest. I don't know if I can win the Tour."
However, he recognised too, with a grin, that should he decide to try to win the yellow jersey one day, he wouldn't be broadcasting the fact.
"For sure, I like surprises, and also if I can do it, it would be a nice way to surprise myself. Staying calm and saving energy, really calculating your efforts, is a completely different way to race and I don't know if I can do it."
In the meantime the balancing act between handling rainbow-jersey expectations and winning major races continues.
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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