A day after he survived a general classification challenge from one of the best time trialists in the world at the Tour of California's Folsom time trial, Etixx-Quickstep's Julian Alaphilippe passed another test on Saturday, fending off an onslaught of attacks on a hilly circuit from Santa Rosa to the Pacific coast and back.
The 23-year-old Frenchman is just one stage away from claiming his first general classification win as a professional, needing to make it through a very flat Sacramento stage on Sunday before he can claim the final victory.
"I hope it's going to be more easy than today, because it was really hard," he said in the press conference following Saturday's stage. "The first part of the race was always à bloc. Fortunately, it is the last stage tomorrow and we will see."
The Sacramento circuit doesn't offer much opportunity for any rider hoping to usurp Alaphilppe's lead. The flat parcours is almost guaranteed to produce a bunch sprint, although the last time the race came to Scaramento crosswinds blowing through the agricultural fields around the state's capitol produced a short-lived split.
Fortunately for Alaphilippe, he's on Belgian team packed with tough and experienced Classics riders who can help keep him safe.
"I can win the race for sure, but I can also lose the race," he said. "I'm confident in my team because I have strong big guys for the flat stage, and we will do our best. I hope it's going to be a good day for my team and also for me. I've never won a general classification in my young career, so it's going to be my first good win. So I can be happy, but it's not finished."
Almost all of Alaphilippe's rivals for the general classification hit out at some point during Saturday's stage. George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) was briefly in a move, and Lawson Craddock (Cannondale Pro Cycling) attacked multiple times. But it was a brief foray off the front by Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), who is second overall juts 16 seconds back, that was the most dangerous for Alaphilippe.
The unflappable Frenchman and his team appeared to have everything under control for most of the day, however.
"He attacked in the really uphill, and I wanted to stay a little bit behind because my teammate [Petr] Vakoc was with him," Alaphilippe said of Dennis. "I was not on stress. I know it's a long way to go and I was in the group. So it was really hard and finally we were back together. I was not surprised. I knew there would be a lot of attacks today."
Surviving all of those attacks to set up his chance for the overall win in California could put Alaphilippe in good position to make his team's Tour de France squad. It would be his first Grand Tour.
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