For the time being, Julian Alaphilippe is content to be the third man. Every time Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel pin on a number, in the fields or on the road, they seem to compete as though it were the final, defining encounter in their rivalry. The Frenchman, by contrast, seems more willing to pick and choose his battles.
Tirreno-Adriatico was a case in point. Alaphilippe ran through the scales to win at Chiusdino on stage 2, but he was a more muted presence later in the week, where he appeared to be meting out his efforts more carefully with Milan-San Remo in mind.
Van Aert and Van der Poel, on the other hand, competed at full volume for most of the week, winning two stages apiece and marking themselves out as seemingly inseparable favourites for Milan-San Remo. Speaking to reporters on a video call on Thursday afternoon, Alaphilippe downplayed comparisons between their respective approaches to Tirreno-Adriatico.
"I did my week like I wanted to," Alaphilippe said. "It was a hard week, but I was really happy to have won a nice stage. I didn't play a leading role in the GC stage in the mountains, so I didn't have any interest in going flat out in the final time trial afterwards. I was happy with my week. I wasn't looking at how my rivals raced, I was more focused on myself and what I had to do. And that's still the case for Saturday."
When Alaphilippe, Van Aert and Van der Poel formed the winning move at the Tour of Flanders last autumn, it seemed as though the hierarchy was already being set for the Spring Classics of 2021, and all three riders have underscored the idea with striking displays in the opening weeks of the new season.
The world champion caught the eye with his aggression at the Tour de la Provence and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but he had to settle for second at Strade Bianche, where he was overwhelmed by the intensity of Van der Poel's remarkable effort on the Via Santa Caterina. Although Alaphilippe beat Van der Poel and Van Aert to the line at Chiusdino last week, he insisted that he is a step or two behind them going to Milan-San Remo.
"Am I among the favourites? Maybe, yes. But am I the favourite? No, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel have more the role of ultra-favourites," the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider said. "I want to be up there, to have good legs and to make an impression on the race, and then we'll see where that leaves me. But it's sure that when you look at the last few days and their performances, they're the big favourites."
Almost four decades have now passed since a reigning world champion claimed victory in Milan-San Remo. Giuseppe Saronni was the last man to achieve the feat, in 1983, although the last rider to triumph on the Via Roma with a rainbow jersey of sorts was a QuickStep rider: Paolo Bettini was wearing the vertical rainbow of defending World Cup champion when he won in 2003.
"Whatever happens, this will be an edition of Milan-San Remo that I'll never forget because I'm wearing the rainbow jersey," Alaphilippe said. "I've already won this before, so now just to ride it with the rainbow jersey on my back is a pleasure and an honour. I'm really motivated, and I think I'll savour every kilometre."
Alaphilippe does not, however, remember every metre of the finale, despite finishing on the podium three times in his four participations to date. No matter, the breathless final minutes of Milan-San Remo take on a logic all of their own.
"It's really important to stay in the front in the final part of San Remo, but you know I still cannot really remember the downhill of the Poggio, because every time I do it, I'm à bloc," Alaphilippe confessed. "The Cipressa and Poggio are always really important, but the downhill of the Poggio, it's like you close your eyes… I just remember the first two corners and then after that, even with my experience, I don't know."
Alaphilippe's participations in Milan-San Remo have coincided with the Poggio's return to pre-eminence, with the final climb proving too much for the sprinters in each of the past four years. The Frenchman placed third on his debut in 2017, when he tracked Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski on the Poggio, and he won the race two years later after leading a small group over the top. Last August, Alaphilippe sparked the winning move with another acceleration on the Poggio, though he was out-matched by Van Aert in the two-up sprint that followed.
Earlier on Thursday afternoon, Van der Poel seemed to warm to the idea of an offensive from as far out as the Cipressa, though Alaphilippe was more guarded whether he would follow the Dutchman there. With the on-form Sam Bennett and Davide Ballerini in their line-up, Deceuninck-QuickStep appear to hold options for every scenario.
"To be honest, I don't know. If I have good legs I'd like to try to follow [Van der Poel], but that's part of the tactics we have to discuss with the team," Alaphilippe said.
"I think I'll have an important role but so will Sam, Davide and all the team. In the end, it's the legs that do the talking in such a long race. It's always exciting on the approach to the Poggio, hoping to have good legs. It's often the key moment of the race, and afterwards, you don't know what can happen."
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