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Julian Alaphilippe: World champion again, in spite of himself

Julian Alaphiilppe (France) wins the world title at the UCI Road World Championships 2021
Julian Alaphiilppe (France) wins the world title at the UCI Road World Championships 2021 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Julian Alaphilippe looked strangely bewildered as he stood on the podium in Leuven, the rainbow jersey safely on his shoulders for another year, and it still hadn’t sunk in by the time he spoke to the media. In fact, it might not sink for a while yet. 

“I think I need time,” the Frenchman said repeatedly after winning the world road race title on Sunday for a second year in succession.

That’s because Alaphilippe didn’t really think he was going to win. Whisper it, but on some level he maybe didn’t even want to win. 

Last year, his entire season was effectively built around the Worlds in Imola, and he duly delivered. This time, despite emphasising throughout the year how special it has been to wear the rainbow jersey, there have been suggestions it has weighed heavily and that he was ready to wave it goodbye - albeit with a good send-off. 

Remarkably, he confirmed as much as he pulled on a fresh one on Sunday evening. 

“If you know me, I use a lot of energy in a race, because I love to attack, I love when there’s movement in the race, but when you have rainbow jersey, everyone is looking at you," he said.

"And when you’re not so good, everyone destroys you, because you have to win every race because you're the world champion.”

Alaphilippe was asked about his apparent 'fatalistic’ mindset in the build-up to the Worlds in Flanders, and whether it was all one spectacular bluff.

“No, there was a lot of truth in it," he countered. "To be honest, it was an incredible emption to win last year and wear the rainbow jersey all year. I wanted to enjoy it, and give my all to honour the jersey, and that took a lot of energy. 

"Coming to the worlds I was almost happy that the year was over, even if it went quickly, because I could re-start on other things, other objectives, albeit with the idea in a corner of my head to do well today and assume my status. That’s what I did, but I need some time to realise what I’ve done, because coming here, I never imagined I’d be leaving with the rainbow jersey.”

Alaphilippe certainly raced like he wasn’t afraid of losing. He launched his first attack as early as 60km out, springing from the saddle in his inimitable style on the Bekestraat with such violence that only 10 riders could go with him. They bridged to an earlier move to make it a front group of 17, which Alaphilippe again attacked on the Smeysberg - still on the Flandrien circuit and still 50km from the finish. 

The race then settled down on the way back to the Leuven circuit, but he was soon thrashing his way up the Wijnpers. He didn’t quite get the gap but, remarkably after accelerating again on the flat, he snapped the elastic on the steep cobbles of the Sint-Antoniusberg. 

It was heavy metal cycling, and he wore every facial expression as he went all-in to drive home his advantage on the final lap.

“In the end I stopped thinking,” he said. “Just full gas. It was a really painful last 20km.”

The idea that Alaphilippe didn’t have great expectations was reinforced by the fact that Florian Senechal was handed co-leader status. French manager Thomas Voeckler even revealed that Alaphilippe had dropped back to the car at one point to ask if he should work to set up a sprint. 

“We followed the plan perfectly. Florian was focused on a sprint, and I was more free to attack and see what I could do,” Alaphilippe explained. “I felt good all day, and that’s why I decided to attack some times, but I never imagined I’d been alone, and do more than one lap alone.”

In pulling on the rainbow jersey in Leuven, he almost unexpectedly underlined his name in the history books, becoming the 13th rider to win the men’s world title twice, and the first Frenchman to achieve the feat. 

“This is something special - for me, for my career. It will be a memory I’ll happily recount to my little boy,” he said, referring to his son who was born this year. 

“To be honest, I still don’t realise I’m here with the jersey. For me, last week I was just enjoying every kilometre and feeling happy just to be with the French team to do a beautiful race. And I just won. I think I need time. It’s another special emotion.”

Alaphilippe will now sport the rainbow bands for another 12 months, and will have to handle the pressures that come with them, even if he’s well aware of his privilege. After struggling to come to terms with what had just happened, he concluded his press conference with something of a statement of intent. 

“Since 2014, I’m still the same rider, and I don’t want to change anything,” he said. “I took a lot of pleasure in riding like this and for me it’s really important to keep this pleasure, because cycling is a hard sport, and I don’t want to become a robot. 

“I want to continue to attack, to enjoy, to race with panache - even if I lose sometimes or a lot of times. I want to give everything to try and win, with my heart, and that’s even more beautiful when you have the rainbow jersey on your shoulders.”

That wasn’t quite it from the new world champion. 

“Thank you,” he said as he stood up, “and Merry Christmas.”

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Deputy Editor - Europe. Patrick is an NCTJ-trained journalist who has seven years’ experience covering professional cycling. He has a modern languages degree from Durham University and has been able to put it to some use in what is a multi-lingual sport, with a particular focus on French and Spanish-speaking riders. After joining Cyclingnews as a staff writer on the back of work experience, Patrick became Features Editor in 2018 and oversaw significant growth in the site’s long-form and in-depth output. Since 2021 he has been Deputy Editor - Europe, taking more responsibility for the site’s content as a whole, while still writing and - despite a pandemic-induced hiatus - travelling to races around the world. Away from cycling, Patrick spends most of his time playing or watching other forms of sport - football, tennis, trail running, darts, to name a few, but he draws the line at rugby.