On the morning of stage 8 of the Tour de France, former yellow jersey wearer Julian Alaphilippe took a special visitor in Mâcon. Moments before he would greet his adoring crowd en route to the stage start, the Frenchman spoke to ex-pro Sylvain Chavanel on the Deceuninck-QuickStep bus.
Chavanel had once done what Alaphilippe was then preparing to attempt – to take back the yellow jersey. In 2010, wins at Spa and Station des Rousses saw Chavanel spend two days in the maillot jaune for QuickStep, while this year Alaphilippe had already spent three days in yellow.
"If the opportunity presents itself, he will do everything to take back the jersey," said Chavanel to l'Equipe before the stage. The opportunity, on one of the toughest days of the race so far, presented itself on the road to Saint-Étienne, and just over five hours after his pre-race tête-à-tête, Alaphilippe grabbed it with both hands.
"I had nothing to lose today, so my plan was to see how I feel and then to try in the final," said Alaphilippe after the stage. "I'm just super happy that I realised what I wanted to do."
Alaphilippe, already a stage winner in Épernay on the Tour's third day, went on the attack on the final classified climb of the day, the third-category Côte de la Jalliere. With Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) 30 seconds up the road and bonus seconds of 8, 5 and 2 on offer at the summit, the QuickStep master plan was enacted.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was the only man to follow Alaphilippe, working with his countryman as both men had something to gain by doing so. In Saint-Étienne, 12 kilometres later, De Gendt held on to claim the stage but finishing in third place, 20 seconds up on the peloton and race leader Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), was more than enough to take back yellow.
"I knew I had only six seconds [to Ciccone]. It's nothing big, but at the same time I knew I had to try to attack on the last climb," said Alaphilippe. "It was not a battle [with Pinot]; it was a nice walk together.
"Even if I was alone, I would go full gas to the line, but it was really good to have Pinot with me. It's also good for him to climb up the standings. It's really beautiful to see this for French cycling."
It's a beautiful day for France too, as tomorrow Alaphilippe will wear yellow on Bastille Day. He's the third Frenchman to do so this century after Thomas Voeckler in 2004 and 2011, and Tony Gallopin 2014. "It's difficult to do better, I think," he said, referring to the scenario.
While the stage profile looks tailor-made for a rider like Alaphilippe with barely a section of flat road all day and a lumpy finale, he admitted afterwards that he hadn't targeted the stage beforehand, only planning his offensive due to his slender deficit to Ciccone.
"Honestly, I didn't know the stage," he said, reiterating what he had said before racing it. "I didn't recon it. The last climb, where I attacked, I had never ridden my bike there before.
"There was no bluff. I'm not someone who bluffs. I wanted to attack somewhere that suited my characteristics."
Retaking yellow is just the latest in a long line of successes for Alaphilippe in 2019. He's been in top form since the season began and has enjoyed half a season that would put the entire careers of many riders in the shade.
Wins at the Vuelta a San Juan, Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo, La Flèche Wallonne, the mountain classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and more beyond, have lifted him to the top of the UCI rankings.
"It's been an incredible season," he said. "For me, it's been a surprise that it's gone so well. Last season improved me mentally – after my World Championships disappointment, I wanted to start on a good note.
"I made a decision in accordance with the team to stay in Colombia [after Colombia 2.1] and prepare for the Italian races. It paid off, but I was never away from home as much as I was this year.
"In the past, I was happy to be there in the finale. Today I could be an actor."
He's had a starring role so far in the Tour de France, and he's certainly revered like a movie star by the masses of fans waiting for him before and after each stage. That will continue, but how long his stay in yellow will last is less clear.
A stronger-than-expected showing at on stage 6 to La Planche des Belles Filles even has some wondering if he has GC ambitions going forward. But Alaphilippe would not be drawn on that.
"I don't want to think about this," he said. "Tomorrow I will enjoy the day and we will see."
A French yellow jersey on Bastille Day is already something to celebrate, but a French yellow jersey in Paris? We'll have 15 days to find out.
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