Had the finest of margins gone the other way over the past two days, World Champion Julian Alaphilippe could have three wins from four stages at Itzulia Basque Country.
Instead, the Frenchman has had to make do with just the one victory so far this week, the second stage in Viana where Alaphilippe benefitted from a perfect lead out from QuickStep-AlphaVinyl teammate Remco Evenepoel.
On day four in Itzulia, Alaphilippe missed out on victory by the tiniest of margins as Dani Martínez (Ineos Grenadiers) beat him to the line by a tyre length in Zamudio. Wednesday saw him narrowly lose out to Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious), too, on the uphill sprint in Amurrio.
After a nightmare opening time trial where he shed 44 seconds thanks to an unforced bike change, the 29-year-old has been hunting wins and the bonus seconds on stages 2, 3 and 4. He’s racked up 22 seconds so far to halve his deficit to race leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), and he should form a formidable double threat with Evenepoel on the remaining two tough hilly stages.
Speaking to the assembled press after stage 4, Alaphilippe said that he’s still lacking a bit of confidence.
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“At the end, Remco did a great job again,” he said. “The legs were good, but I missed a little something today.
“I don’t know what I was missing. Maybe I’m still lacking a little confidence and the instincts of fighting for victory every day, even if I win a few days ago.
“Of course, you can’t win every day either, but we will have to correct these little mistakes quickly.”
Alaphilippe, of course, has an eye on the upcoming Ardennes Classics. He’ll miss Amstel Gold Race, this year a week earlier and just a day after Itzulia finishes, but he will line up at Brabantse Pijl (which he won in 2020), La Flèche Wallonne (he’s a three-time winner), and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (runner-up in 2021) with ambitions to win.
The week of hard racing in the Basque Country should set him up well for success in Belgium over the coming two weeks. Thursday’s stage 4 was the latest challenge in the race, which will only get tougher in the final two days.
Once again, Alaphilippe was among a select group of leading riders in Zamudio, coming to the finish with 33 others after his teammate Evenepoel played a major role in catching final breakaway rider Cofidis’ Victor Lafay with just a kilometre to run.
Following a similar stage 2 catch of Kern Pharma’s Ibon Ruiz with 400 metres to go, it was another brutal late capture for the break. Alaphilippe said he had sympathy with his countryman Lafay, who last year took a breakthrough stage win at the Giro d’Italia.
“I didn’t think we were going to catch the breakaway at the top of the last climb,” he said. “Especially when I heard it was Victor Lafay who was in front – he is very strong. I would have been happy if he had won the stage.”