It seems strange to think that Julian Alaphilippe is still only 31. It feels as if the Frenchman has been around forever, and almost belongs to a different era to that of Tadej Pogačar and Remco Evenepoel. His back-to-back World Championships victories feel longer than three years ago, possibly thanks to Covid time, and that run at the 2019 Tour de France even longer ago.
However, he is still here, speaking of wanting to get back to his best level, and wanting to fight with the best at whichever race he is sent to. This feels like a crucial year, after two seasons beset with illness, injury, and disappointment. Not just because it's his contract year with Soudal Quick-Step, but because it feels like he could be at a turning point. A successful year could encourage him to keep marching on, while another below par effort might do the opposite.
"To be honest, I took every season of my career like it’s the last one," Alaphilippe told Cycling Weekly and others at the Tour Down Under. "I never think about ‘f***, it’s my contract year’ or ‘oh, last year I won a lot so this year I don’t care.’ Every new season I started with grinta, like I won nothing before. I always think like this.
"To be honest, I don’t know where I will be next year, if I continue in the team or if I continue cycling, I don’t know."
Alaphilippe feels like a survivor from another era, perhaps because he was at Quick-Step before the Remco revolution began. His calendar this year reflects the new hierarchy at the team, with Evenepoel heading to the Tour de France and Alaphilippe to the Giro d'Italia. There is no room on an eight-man team looking to win the yellow jersey for a rider like the Frenchman, although he says it was his idea to go to Italy instead of France. You can see his logic.
"It's mostly a decision that came from myself, because a few years ago I said to my team that I want to go to the Giro one time in my career," he said. "This year, I want to come back to my best level. The goal is to be at 100% for the Flemish Classics, especially the Tour of Flanders, with the Giro after. It's nice to have new goals.
"You shouldn't think that the Giro is easier than the Tour or the Vuelta. There are always guys at 100%, in every race. I know the Giro is one of the hardest races, as I have seen on television. We will have a strong team with a sprinter and a lot of opportunities."
You can see Alaphilippe triumphing up one of those punchy climbs so beloved of the Giro's organisers, maybe even a couple depending on the field. In a year in which Evenpoel, Pogačar, Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingegaard will all be going to the Tour, it might be a good idea to seek success elsewhere. He has triumphed on Italian soil before - at Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo and Strade Bianche, so he is no stranger to victory on the peninsular.
He has been a stranger to consistent form in the last few years, with four wins coming since his last world title in 2021, but has proven that he still has the ability to win. His plan now is to make that a more regular occurrence. Sixth overall at the Tour Down Under might not scream world beater, but the Soudal Quick-Step rider stressed that he was happy with his performance in Australia, where he finished fourth on Willunga Hill and sixth on the Mount Lofty stage. It is January, after all.
"It was a really beautiful few weeks we had here and after," he said. "It will be the time to start in Europe for the Classics and a completely different mood and atmosphere and weather, but I think I am already happy now.
"I saw the result of a good feeling. Simply, I came here with the ambition to see how I feel and I was realistic with my ambition about results, because I knew what I did during the winter. I was surprised that I can fight with the best guys until the top of the climb, it is a good surprise, to be honest."
"I knew it would be difficult to win because the guys that win here, I know they train à bloc all winter since November and even October. I know where I am and it’s a good surprise to be there already."
Despite his struggles in 2022 and 2023, there was no big change in his approach to 2024, but he does sound like he is finally coming to a place where he is finding himself again. That's good for him and his team, but also good for cycling.
"I was in the mood to really fight, go in the red zone and really stay there," Alaphilippe said about his race up Willunga. "I never lost this spirit [in the past], but physically I [couldn't]. When I felt that I could not win, a lot of times I did efforts just to kill myself, because it was not funny for me to destroy myself when I knew I cannot win.
"I know myself and one year ago for sure, in this situation, I will feel directly I cannot win and I will attack or I will do two/three big efforts, explode and drop just to destroy myself."
"I did nothing crazy this winter, normal training, no big hours, no crazy intensity, because the most important thing for me was to build a good base and to improve from now to my goals."
One of his loudest critics in recent times has been Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere, who has not been happy with the return from his investment. To that end, the team parted ways with Alaphilippe's coach, Franck, his cousin, at the end of the year. However, Alaphilippe would not stoop to a war of words.
"I don't care [about the comments], I just do what I have to do," he said.
"I think now I am really busy, I give my best every day, I also know how professional I am, so I just do my job and he does his job. I think now he is quite busy and so am I, so if we have to talk together, we always do and the relationship is always ok."
Next stop for Alaphilippe is Opening Weekend and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; if he can continue to fight in that red zone and train at his best, then we might see the 31-year-old crossing the line first a few more times in 2024. Then remember how good he still is, rather than was.
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