In the end, it wasn't to be. Of course it wasn't. But still, it was fun while it lasted.
After slipping out of the yellow jersey 24 hours previously, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) fell off the podium on the final mountain stage of the Tour de France. There were no regrets, though, and no disappointment – only pride, alongside the obvious exhaustion.
"I gave it everything I had. I couldn't have done any better. I was expecting to blow up at one moment or another, and, voilà, there it was," Alaphilippe told reporters in Val Thorens after slumping to the floor beyond the finish line.
The Frenchman, who has lit up the 2019 Tour with his two stage wins and 14 days in the famous maillot jaune, lost contact with the rest of the overall contenders 13km from the top of the 33km ascent to Val Thorens. Having pushed so far past his perceived limitations for so long, his legs were finally, inevitably, failing him.
He had already lost the yellow jersey the previous afternoon to Egan Bernal, but was now slipping down the standings. He will ride into Paris on Sunday to finish the race in fifth place - not that the final position seemed to matter.
"If I'd kept hold of second, or if I was 50th, that's the same thing to me. That's sort of my temperament – a bit all or nothing," Alaphilippe said.
"I still managed it pretty well, and I'm very proud of what my teammate Enric Mas did for me. Without my teammates, I would have exploded well before, and I'd have finished 15 minutes down on everyone.
"I dug in. I didn't want to have any regrets, and I don't have any. I think I can be proud of my Tour this year."
There's little doubt about that. No matter his absence from the podium in Paris, Alaphilippe at the 2019 Tour is a story that will written into the history books.
When he claimed the yellow jersey with that effervescent solo victory in Epernay, it looked like Alaphilippe at the peak of his powers. Little did we – or he – know he'd go on to completely redefine the limits of his own potential. He was devastated to lose the jersey on La Planche des Belles Filles – through a calculation error rather than physical weakness – and he set out with a vengeance to claim it back in Saint Etienne two days later.
From there, Alaphilippe made it to the Pyrenees, and whispers of him competing for the title surfaced when he ripped into the Pau time trial, winning the stage and extending his lead. Those whispers turned to full-on hubbub when he not only made it through the Pyrenees but did so with an even bigger buffer.
Still, the Alps – three brutal days of them – still stood between him and Paris, and it turned out to be a step too far. The chink of weakness exposed at Prat d'Albis was teased ajar by Egan Bernal on the road to Valloire on Thursday, and then forced open on the Col de l'Iseran on Friday. On Saturday, back in unfamiliar blue, he fell away on what was a shortened final mountain stage. He had nothing left.
"It's all way beyond what I could have ever imagined," Alaphilippe said of his adventures over the past three weeks.
"If I look at what I've done during this Tour, and if you'd told me what would happen before I took to the start, I'd never have believed you."
For the best part of two weeks, Alaphilippe has repeatedly said how much of an 'honour' it was to wear the yellow jersey, but it has to be said that he honoured the jersey, too.
Not only did he dig so deep to defend it for so long, he was a multi-platinum hit with the French public. Who can forget the images of him taking off his yellow jersey and putting it on the shoulders of a young kid in the pouring rain? His panache on the bike was matched by his charisma off it, it's no exaggeration to say he captured the imagination of a nation for three full weeks. On the 100th anniversary of the maillot jaune, ASO could hardly have asked for a better ambassador.
Whether he can come back and take it to Paris one day, who knows. Living in the moment served Alaphillippe pretty well at this Tour, and he was just basking in this one.
"I'm just exhausted, but I'm happy and proud of what I've done, of what we've done, because it's been an exceptional Tour de France for my team. We've had some exceptional moments," he said.
"For me personally, I think it's going to change a lot of things. It's only sport, but it's these moments in life you have to make the most of."
By this point the pain seemed to have disappeared from his face, and that slightly mischievous smile broke out once more.
"Ah, it's just great."
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