Given the number of big races he not only wins, but bends to his will, you’d be forgiven for thinking bike racing was a walk in the park for Julian Alaphilippe.
Turns out, however, it’s really difficult. His most effortless pursuit? Becoming a father.
‘Winning a stage in the Tour is really difficult but becoming a father…that comes naturally,” he laughs [it's not entirely clear if the French rider is referring to conception or the sleepless nights that often follow... - Ed.]
“It was also special to win the stage of the Tour de France with the yellow jersey, especially a few days after the birth of my son,” he continues.
“That’s the biggest change in my life, I’m really, really happy to become a father. My son gives me so much love. It’s something you can’t compare with cycling.”
Alaphilippe has always exuded a cheeky charm, a breezy confidence that nothing can touch him. He glides through rooms and selects individuals to get in on whatever joke has momentarily captured him.
And yet, a hunger must remain, to follow up one rainbow jersey immediately with another, to turn up to the Tour de France each year and not only win, but delight everyone watching with the performances he puts on.
“I think it’s a key during your career to always want more,” he explains. “To always want to win. Otherwise it’s a bit complicated to continue at the highest level. I always want to be better, always want to improve, so I’m happy when I put some new challenges in like the Flemish classics [in 2021], that keeps me awake.
“Liège is still one of the races I want to win,” the Frenchman admits. “I will try again this year. I’m really motivated because I was already close a lot of times but it’s one of the races that suits me the best but I never win. So for sure it will be the main goal of my first part of the season. It’s a race you win with the legs.”
It’s not all about winning, however, for Alaphilippe cycling is as much about the emotions, the sensations as it is about cold, hard results
“First I want to enjoy it again,” he says of the rainbow bands. “To ride with this beautiful jersey, and just try to win a race, to enjoy it.
“The thing I learned the most [from his year in the rainbow jersey] is to enjoy more without putting too much pressure on myself. I always want to perform, to be at 100%, and I learned I have to accept when I’m not 100%, even when I’m world champion.
“I can’t win every race I want and even when I lose I learn for the future. Even if I win I think already on the next one I want to win. Sometimes it’s really important to realise and enjoy it.”
For other riders, you’d think it a cop-out to limit expectations in this way, but the French rider has plenty of hopes and dreams resting upon his shoulders to provide motivation going into 2022, not least his own.
“The only pressure is the pressure I put on myself because I don’t want to disappoint my team-mates, me, my supporters,” he says.
“When you are world champion it’s hard to be not good [in a race]. That’s the only pressure I feel. Never did I imagine I’d be two-time world champion. I want to enjoy it, take the time to enjoy it. Some years ago it was a dream for me, now two years in a row it’s still now difficult to talk about.”
With all due respect to Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the only real question left of Julian Alaphilippe and his career is the Tour de France. Once more at the birth of a season we ask: 'will this be the year he goes all-in for the yellow jersey'?
Having held on to the maillot jaune for 14 stages in 2019, and donned it again in 2020 and 2021, it hardly feels a feat outside of his reach.
“I think for this moment still the same, day-by-day.” Boo Julian, why can’t you just accept the weight of your countrymen and the wider cycling world to be a Frenchman who promises to win the Tour de France?
“Anyway I have to work hard before the Tour to be ready. The recon will be important, to see which stages can be really good for me or not. I always take the start of the Tour with a big motivation and you never know what it will bring to you."
Alaphilippe's Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl Team will be taking a sprint contender to France - albeit currently unclear which; the GC is not the team's primary goal, but it doesn't mean it cant be a goal.
"The first thing we can say now is we don’t have the team to fight for GC so if I can perform well I will try to do GC but the main goal is to win a stage with the sprinters, with the team, as a team, we don’t take the start of the Tour to take the victory in the GC. It’s not the main goal of the team.”
If memory serves correctly, this is more of a commitment to the overall fight for yellow than we had last year, or the year before that.
“I don’t know, it can be something I will have to try in the future, maybe, I don’t know…
“Not this year, it’s a question always asked to me…but no no I would like to have a nicer answer but to be honest I don’t know,” he’s torn between getting carried away with the romanticism of the idea and the reality of it.
“I also don’t know if I’m capable of winning the Tour, you see now how strong the guys are. For sure I can also be strong but to be so regular for three weeks…I tried in 2019, it was a really incredible experience and it’s something that I didn’t expect when I started the Tour, so you never know.”
Come on, Julian, level with us. The day you decide to go all-in for the yellow jersey you’re not going to tell a soul. It will be launched silently, an unexpected offensive no-one saw coming, that will take the world by storm.
“Yeah I like to surprise, and also if I do it [in his usual manner] it can be a nice surprise to myself on the way to race - to stay calm, to save energy, it’s a completely different way to race and I don’t know if I can do it. It’s something you really have to do, to calculate your race, to save energy as much as possible, until now I haven’t tried it.”
Alaphilippe has taken to describing his second rainbow jersey as “more than a dream”. Let’s hope, in the most biased way imaginable, that he can conjure up another masterpiece beyond comprehension if not this July, then at least in a July still to come.
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