Julian Alaphilippe has been voted as L’Équipe’s ‘Champion of Champions’ for the third year in succession after he retained his rainbow jersey in spectacular fashion at the World Championships in Leuven.
To mark the award, the QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl rider participated in a joint interview for the newspaper with Bernard Hinault, and the discussion inevitably turned to the Tour de France, where Alaphilippe placed 5th overall in 2019 after wearing the yellow jersey for two weeks.
Alaphilippe has worn yellow and won stages in the opening of the past two Tours, but he has been reluctant to commit to a concerted tilt at the general classification despite his remarkable display in 2019.
Hinault suggested that Alaphilippe would have to be certain of his form before targeting the Tour as it would be a “big risk,” and the world champion agreed with that assessment.
“That’s a perfect summary. And the problem is that you can never be sure of your shot,” Alaphilippe said. “Why risk putting a season on hold for just one goal? All I have to do is get sick or crash after two days of racing, and everything is gone. You can’t plan anything on the Tour.”
Alaphilippe also acknowledged that the lie of the land had changed since his remarkable and unexpected adventure on the 2019 Tour due to the arrival of Tadej Pogačar and a new generation of talent.
“If it’s going to happen, it will happen. I’m still motivated to do the Tour de France but I am almost 30 years old. Now there are 22-year-olds who are coming in and making the podium in their first three-week races, riders like Pogačar who win everywhere, all the time,” Alaphilippe said.
“I don’t compare myself to them. I’m trying to build the best career I can within my means. People forget how hard it is to win even one stage of a Grand Tour. The general level is extremely high. Half of the peloton spends the season at altitude. At the start of every race, it’s a war. I just stay focused on what I do best, and I want to keep the notion of pleasure intact, because it’s only sport. You always want to do better and that’s normal, but there’s also life.”
Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the Tour in 1985, has not always been generous in his appraisal of the generations who followed him, but he had words of encouragement for Alaphilippe and his aggressive racing style.
“Of course we are similar. In the modern peloton, you are one of those rare riders who have the drive, who don’t think and who go for it at the slightest opening,” Hinault told Alaphilippe. “You, Mathieu [van der Poel], Remco [Evenepoel], you’re bringing about such a change. For a long time, the big teams ruled and the others weren’t allowed to move. You guys decided to change that and it’s great to see.”
Alaphilippe has yet to outline his full race programme for 2022, but he has already confirmed that he will skip the cobbled Classics in order to focus on the Ardennes. The Tour will again be on his schedule, as will the World Championships, even if he was reluctant to start thinking about a third successive title just yet.
“At the team training camp, all the guys were already telling me: ‘Have you seen the course of the Worlds, there will be a climb on the final circuit!’ I told them: ‘Two seconds! I haven’t even digested the last title yet…’ There will be other races to win before then,” said Alaphilippe, who noted, too, that suffering was part of the game.
“There is a very big mental part, that’s undeniable. You have to like to suffer to win races and you have to be able to dig deep into the pain to do big things. You have to be a masochist to ride a bike, it’s such a difficult sport. The guy who tells you he doesn’t like pain, he won’t have a great career. It can all be worked on in training, but there is a huge psychological dimension that comes into play to go even further, to exceed your own limits. Everyone trains hard nowadays, all the teams are at the top of their game. It’s the head that makes the difference.”