Julian Alaphilippe gave Deceuninck-QuickStep their 16th victory of the 2019 season at Tirreno-Adriatico, beating Greg van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First) on the kick-up to the finish line after an aggressive final to the stage into the Tuscan hills.
Alaphilippe thumped his chest in celebration and thanked his teammates for controlling the late attacks and setting him up for the sprint. The Frenchman banged elbows with Van Avermaet but had the extra speed and power to hit the line first.
"My team did a tremendous job, controlling the breakaway, protecting me and keeping an eye on all the attacks in the final," Alaphilippe explained.
"Styby (Zdenek Stybar) covered the moves, and that helped me remain calm and patiently wait for the sprint, which I opened with 150 meters to go, going full gas to the line. I had good legs but was also very strong also mentally, and that made the difference."
The stage success was not enough to spark a broad smile and happy celebrations on the podium. Alaphilippe had been hoping to target the overall classification at Tirreno-Adriatico but Deceuninck-QuickStep lost 37 seconds to Mitchelton-Scott in the team time trial. Alaphilippe lost 30 seconds to Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and 15 seconds to Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb).
He considers that a major handicap with the final 10km time trial also likely to see him lose further time.
"For sure the TTT was not the best way to start the race," Alaphilippe said.
"Everyone was saying this race would be win by a few seconds but yesterday we lost almost one minute… Now I don't want to really think about the GC and will just take things day after day. I won today and that's a really nice feeling, good and I just want to enjoy and continue like that. If I can be close for GC then nice, if not that's racing, I won't be disappointed."
Alaphilippe won Strade Bianche and hopes to end his March goals by winning Milan-San Remo. He finished third in 2016, beaten in a three-rider sprint by Michal Kwiatkowski and Peter Sagan. He is convinced he is a far better rider after a superb season in 2018, where he won La Fleche Wallonne, the Clasica San Sebastian, the Tour of Britain and two stages at the Tour de France.
"Maybe difficult for us to be at the same level in 2019. It was an incredible season for the team and me but we start in the same way," he explained.
"For sure my shape is better than two or three years ago. It was really special to finish on the podium of Milan-San Remo on my first ride; I still have good memories of that. But I feel like a very different rider, I've got more experience and I'm calmer. I'm stronger physically and mentally."