Not winning a stage during the Tour de France Grand Départ weekend in Brussels was a disappointment for Deceuninck-QuickStep, but if one stage was perfectly suited for revenge of the so-called ‘Wolfpack’, it was Monday's third stage with its finish in the heart of the Champagne region: in the village of Épernay.
Julian Alaphilippe stormed to a massively deserved stage victory after a brave solo move from 16km out. The dramatic victory from 'Loulou' was overshadowed by a major crash from the team’s workhorse, Kasper Asgreen. Nevertheless, multiple champagne corks will pop at the Deceuninck-QuickStep hotel this evening.
"I don’t know," team manager Patrick Lefevere responded when asked about the size of the evening's celebration, "because we’re staying in a Campanile hotel tonight… There are really great hotels in France. Maybe they’re going to have only five bottles. Maybe I’ll have to send someone to Dom Perignon to buy something."
When Alaphilippe found out that he not only won the stage but also took the yellow jersey from Mike Teunissen, he was overcome by emotions. He's the first French rider to wear the maillot jaune since Tony Gallopin in 2014.
"I won in the most beautiful way, taking the jersey too," Alaphilippe said.
Thanks to his adventurous solo, Alaphilippe won the stage and now leads the general classification by 20 seconds over Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
"I knew the finale suited me, but that’s not a guarantee to win," he said.
Near the back-end of a long, fast stage, four categorised climbs awaited the peloton. The race situation: Tim Wellens (Soudal-Lotto) was the last survivor of the long breakaway move and he was fighting to reach the top of the Côte de Mutigny ahead of the peloton to gain two additional points for the mountain classification. The 900-metre climb averaged 12.2 per cent gradient with its summit still 16 windy kilometres away from the finish where a steep short climb concluded the stage. At the top of the climb, there were also eight bonus seconds available for the first rider to crest the summit, then five and two for the third.
Sport director Tom Steels said that it was unsure if Alaphilippe would attack on the Mutigny climb.
"If he felt good, he would go there. If not, he would wait for the final climb towards the finish. If he starts shaking his legs, then we all know how he feels,” Steels said.
Clearly, Alaphilippe felt good. He asked teammate Dries Devenyns to move to the front and go flat out.
"I didn’t think to go from so far out but those percentages suit me well," Alaphilippe said. "I was well positioned at the foot of the climb. I asked Dries to ride the climb full gas. Dries' pace set everybody at their limit. As the speed dropped a little I was able to recover. I was judging my rivals and checked what was going on around me."
Just before the top of the Mutigny climb, Alaphilippe stormed away, and none of the riders behind him is able or willing to join him.
"I attacked just before the top of the climb," he said. "Once I attacked I no longer thought about the consequences. I was focused to ride a nice finale.”
Wellens managed to hold off Alaphilippe, thus Alaphilippe took only one point and five bonus seconds. Wellens punctured, however, and Alaphilippe blasted by, storming away on the climb.
Steels said the 27-year-old French rider did a recon of the final 100km of the stage, and he even checked the final kilometres two times. Unsurprisingly, he went blisteringly fast in the descent compared to the more cautious approach of the Team Ineos riders who were leading the peloton.
Alaphilippe's descent easily held off a counter-attack from Michael Woods (EF Education First), Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) and Mikel Landa (Movistar). Ten kilometres before the finish, the four chasers were reeled in by the peloton and Alaphilippe was more than 50 seconds ahead.
"In the descent I managed to extend my lead,” Alaphilippe said.
On the more wide and open roads towards Épernay, the gap dropped back to 30 seconds at four kilometres from the finish line. In the final kilometres, Alaphilippe stood tall and crossed the finish line while releasing some screams of joy.
"I managed to stay ahead," he said. "I’m pleased that I went for it."
Team manager Patrick Lefevere was also pleased about the performance from Alaphilippe.
"He impresses me every time, just like he did in Milano-Sanremo," Lefevere said. "He’s a rider who’s not often missing out on his targets. It was a typical Alaphilippe move. He’s not racing with his head but with his heart. He’s got a temper. Luckily for cycling, there’s still riders like him in the peloton.
"I expected him to try and win in a sprint," Lefevere said. "If he goes, everybody had to sit down. I figured it might have been tactical, but the four strong chasers didn’t get any closer. It was really hard but he was able to do it.”
Alaphilippe clearly feels at home in the Belgian team. He rode a stunning 2018 season with two great stage victories and the mountain's classification at the 2018 Tour. So far in 2019, he's already won Milano-Sanremo, Strade Bianche and Flèche Wallonne, among others. At the beginning of June, Alaphilippe and the team agreed to continue their partnership for two more years.
"I’m very happy to have taken the decision," Alaphilippe said. "I had to think about my future and I managed to make a deal with Patrick. There were a few other proposals from teams which would result in a different career planning. I’m very happy about my choice. It’s a nice present to wear the maillot for the team."
When asked if he expected to keep the jersey for a long time, Alaphilippe played down the expectations.
"It’s only the third stage," he said. "It’s still a long way to Paris. I want to enjoy every day. The maillot jaune was in my head. I managed to take it. I know that I can’t hold onto it to Paris. In the Vosges, there’s a few more stages that suit me though."
In order to keep the jersey, the Deceuninck-QuickStep team will need to work in the peloton to control the long breakaway attempts. The past few days, Lefevere hasn’t held back in demanding that other teams would take their responsibility.
"Today only Jumbo-Visma and our team were pulling, and Bora in the finale," Lefevere said. "Other teams who want a bunch sprint need to work too. I just heard that Kasper Asgreen crashed hard at 12km from the finish, and as you might have noticed, he’s the motor of our team. I hope that he recovers well and is able to help us out tomorrow."
Indeed, the Danish rider crashed head-first into an advertising panel at a roundabout, his bike breaking into two pieces. Nevertheless, the young rider was able to continue and finish the race, 20 minutes after teammate Alaphilippe.
"I’m thinking about him," Alaphilippe said. "I’m touched to hear that he’s hurt. I hope that he’s doing well. He’s working a lot for the team. I owe him a lot. I hope to receive good news about him soon."
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