Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) completed a notable return to top form in the Vuelta a España on Saturday's eighth stage, where he out-played Rafael Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the brutally difficult ascent of Xorret de Cati.
The 25-year-old Frenchman claimed his first Grand Tour stage win in his first ever Vuelta a España, the third Quick Step Floors have taken in seven days in the Spanish Grand Tour after victories last Sunday and last Tuesday for teammates Yves Lampaert and Matteo Trentin, respectively.
Alaphilippe's win, though, had an extra level of satisfaction for the Frenchman given it confirmed his return to top-level racing after a knee injury in the Vuelta al País Vasco ruined both his Ardennes Classics campaign and a possible repeat participation in the Tour de France. That had been preceded by a third place in Milano-Sanremo and a stage win and long spell in the lead at Paris-Nice, but the middle third of Alaphilippe's season had been wrecked by the knee injury.
In the Vuelta a España, though, Alaphilippe has put all that behind him, following up David Moncoutie's win at Xorret de Catí the last time the race visited the tough ascent in 2010 with another victory for France there, seven years further on.
Rather than a solo win like Moncoutie's, Alaphilippe's win this time round came after some canny racing on the brutally steep ascent behind the top favourite in the break, Majka. Emanuel Buchmann, one of three Bora-Hansgrohe riders in the day-long move, had helped open up the accelerations at the foot of the climb, following Astana's Laurent De Vrees.
But while De Vrees faded and Buchmann's early efforts were then followed on by Majka, Alaphilippe's tenacity at clinging onto Majka's back wheel proved too hard for the Pole to handle. No matter how hard the former Tour King of the Mountains tried, even letting Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) back into the game in the last kilometre in a desperate game of cat and mouse, Alaphilippe was poised to power past just when it mattered for the victory, Quick Step's eleventh of the season.
"To be honest I thought that tomorrow's finish [at Cumbre del Sol] was better for me than today," the 25-year-old said afterwards. "Today we wanted to get somebody in the break and at the start there were a lot of different moves, I felt good, told the team I was going to try for something, and it worked out well.
"For me the finish was in the summit. I knew that Majka would tackle the climb as fast as possible to try and drop me, and I knew I had to try and get up there with him.
"It's been a very odd season for me, and I've come here after slowly regaining form following my operation. I did a race in Belgium, the GP Pino Cerami, and then the Vuelta a Burgos before finally getting here. But I haven't particularly focused on preparing for the Vuelta a España."
From here on out, Alaphilippe said, his objective is to continue to try to get in breaks, work to support David de la Cruz in his teammate's GC bid and, lastly, support Trentin in the few bunch sprints that remain between stage 8 and the race finale in Madrid. For now, though, Alaphilippe's own Vuelta a España can be considered a major success.
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