Where do I even begin with Julien Alaphilippe? He is the most entertaining man in cycling, he is never anonymous in any race he enters and now in Rainbow every performance will be under a microscope. The world champion won the jersey in dominating fashion and deserved to don the famous rainbow jersey. His first race in the colours of the champion of world cycling, marred by controversy. Welcome to the world of Julien Alaphilippe.
Who needs Liege-Bastogne-Liege anyway?
He began his tenure at cycling’s oldest monument race, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and for good reason was one of the pre-race favourites. Coming into the final kilometre, he was alongside other favourite, Marc Hirschi, Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic and although the others are incredible riders, Loulou is the best ‘sprinter’ in that company.
The sprint began with Alaphilippe on the front, however Hirschi was surging forward and it looked like he may add this race to last week’s Fleche Wallonne classics victory. At this point Alaphilippe, whether accidently or on purpose, blocked the sprint of Hirschi and Pogacar, celebrating a great victory as he did. Unbeknownst to him, in his adulation of himself, he actually crossed the line in second with Primoz Roglic taking victory whilst Alaphilippe raised his hands congratulating himself. He would then be relegated to 5th place after the race commissars adjudged him to have blocked the other two riders in final sprint.
So, begins Alaphilippe’s stint in the famed Rainbow jersey and to say he is off to a bad start is an understatement, what is next for him now?
Stage Racer or Grand Tourist?
One of the biggest questions in cycling right now happens to be being asked about the man in the most important jersey, Is he a one-day racer or a Grand Tour contender. That has been the question being asked for a while and for good reason to. Alaphilippe is quickly becoming the Monument Man, the Classics King while simultaneously failing to really make his impact in the stage races and the Grand Tours and the difference is as stark as they come.
Since beginning his professional career in 2014, Alaphilippe has competed in The Tour de France, the Vuelta a Espana as well as 7 out of the 9 other major stage races, missing only the Giro D’Italia and the Tour de Suisse. He has finished in the top 10 four times and never above 5th in any of these races. To put that into perspective, he has managed to finish 16 of 23 of the races that he has competed in. For a General Classification contender and team leader, this is nothing short of poor. His one-day races however paint a very different picture.
Now the monuments, he has competed in all but the Tour of Flanders, managing top three in all of them. Sounds good, well his actual record is one win, 3 second places, one third, a fourth and a fifth. Of the 13 races he has started, he has finished 12, arriving home in the top 5 in 7 of those races. The aforementioned 2020 Liege-Bastogne-Liege should really have been his second win if not for the relegation and the antics on the line. This would have given him wins of 2 of the 3 Monuments he has entered.
The Classics is where this man really shines however, during his career he has started all 8 of the cycling classics, he has won 3 of them and placed a minimum of top 10 in every single one of them. All four of those wins have come in the past 2 years, with him going back to back in the Fleche Wallonne. Alaphilippe has lined up in the classics 30 times, he has finished all but 3 of them, taken a top 10 result in 16 of them and top 3 in seven of the hardest one-day races in cycling. One Incredible statistic going back to the Fleche Wallonne is that he has entered this race four times and never finished lower than 2nd place, winning twice.
Finally to finish off his one day racing pedigree, He has competed once in the Olympics Games finishing fourth, once in the European Championships finishing second, six times in the French National Championships finishing third twice and fifth twice and finally The world championships four times, finishing in the top 10 three times and taking the biggest victory of his career a few weeks ago becoming world champion at the age of 28.
The question is answered really, he is very clearly a one-day race specialist. He is the King of the Classics, the Man of the Monuments and the Ruler of the Championships. The mystique surrounding the man from Saint-Amand-Montrond in France seems to evaporate however whenever he lines up to depart on a stage race. The question then surely must be, if he is so good at the one-day races, why does he not focus on becoming one of the true greats and let the stage races become a thing of the past.
There are two answers to this, first and probably less important, he is becoming an icon, transcendent of the sport and to reinforce this status a Grand Tour would be extremely helpful in the pursuit of greatness. Alaphilippe has already created a very strong cycling resume filled with brilliant wins, which his fellow cyclists have taken notice of, and in turn bringing him to the forefront of world cycling, and with his win at World’s he is now one of the most recognisable faces in the sport.
So why then if he is becoming a mainstream player does he continue to fight a losing battle in the Grand Tours. This is the second answer and more important answer to that question. It is down to something that he cannot control, he is French. With that comes the expectation of glory in a Grand Tour, especially in the Tour de France.
The Drought of the French
The French, especially in recent years, do not win Grand Tours. Their last Grand Tour victory was the Vuelta a Espana won by Laurent Jalabert in 1995, this being the only Grand Tour victory of his career. Before that they won the Giro D’Italia with Laurent Fignon in 1989. However most importantly the reason Alaphilippe will always compete in Grand Tours, they have not won the Tour de France since cycling legend Bernard Hinault won the race in 1985. To put that into perspective France have not won a Grand Tour in 25 years and have not won their home race in 35 years. Another startling fact about this is since 1995, fifteen different countries have won Grand Tours including Italy winning their home tour as recently as 2016 and Spain winning theirs in 2014.
The Tour de France is the original Grand Tour, the greatest race in cycling, and although they have come close, finishing second in 2016 and third in 2017 with Romain Bardet, they cannot seem to break the losing streak, enter Julien Alaphilippe. The man is a legend of the peloton and he always animates the race. He is never afraid to attack and truly helps to make the Tour de France the pinnacle of world cycling.
All the above records and statistics have created the perfect storm, we have a nation in France desperate to win any Grand Tour and a man who is infamous in his presence at every start line. The French have strapped a rocket ship to Loulou, and he is frantically trying to deliver that elusive win. The Classics and the Monuments will keep coming, National and International championships will fall before him and an Olympic Gold should be his for the taking, but a Grand Tour, especially his home Tour will continue to allude him.
The reigning World Champion then has a choice to make, he can fight to cement his legacy as one of the greatest one-day riders of all time. He has already won 4 of the 13 major one day races, discounting National and International championships, and he is only 28 years old. Or he can continue to struggle with the losing battle that is the quest for the Grand Tour victory. In doing so he will be remembered as another French rider who failed to bring home the Maillot Jaune.