The tan lines from his helmet straps mark him out as a professional cyclist; so too the combination of leanness and rude health peculiar to the breed.
There is nothing undernourished about Julian Alaphilippe, but the regulation grey Etixx-Quick-Step jogging suit hangs loosely about his 62kg frame. As he kills time with the mechanics in the car park before wandering back inside an anonymous hotel close to the Dutch-Belgian border, three days after finishing second at La Fléche Wallonne in only his second season as a professional, the 22-year-old Frenchman radiates well-being.
He is quick to play down his chances of a similar performance at tomorrow’s Liége-Bastogne-Liége, but his result at Fléche did not surprise insiders as greatly as it might have more causal observers of the sport. Alaphilippe is a class act, say those who have followed his progress since an espoir, possessed of Hushovd-like descending skills to equal his more experienced rivals in the peloton. After his performance on the Mur de Huy, it’s fair to say that he is equal to the steepest ramps in the Ardennes, too.
Winner of the points classification and the final stage at the Tour de l’Avenir in his last season for the Etixx-iHNed Continental team, Alaphilippe was swiftly promoted to the WorldTour squad in 2014 and hasn’t looked back. Glancing around a hotel lounge populated variously by Strade Bianche winner Zdeněk Štybar and by World Champion Michal Kwiatkowski, he concedes that joining what he describes as the best team in the sport might have been intimidating, were it not for the warmth of the welcome from his new colleagues.
“To know that I had done a good job, to see Michal raise his arms in the jersey, that was just a huge, huge moment for me,” Alaphilippe recalls of his ride at the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, “and now to be second at Fléche…” Tellingly, it is his service to the World Champion that appears to hold greater significance for the young Frenchman. He was riding for Kwiatkowski too at Fléche when the call came over the radio that his leader did not feel he had the legs for the Huy, and to attack.
“When I came here [to the Ardennes], my job was to bring Michal as far as possible. I was already very happy with the work I’d done, following the attacks and having Michal on my wheel.
“From three kilometres out to two [at Fléche], I was just fighting to protect Michal. There were attacks going left and right, people fighting for position; it was really crazy. I was really happy with the job I’d done just getting to the foot of the climb. Tom Steels came on the radio with about 500m or 600m to go and said, ‘Listen, it’s up to you. Go for it.’ I just thought, I’ve got to give everything I’ve got now.”
Alaphilippe describes the final 200m as endless, but watch the YouTube footage and he is clearly still gaining speed as the line draws closer, shedding the vastly more experienced Michael Albasini (Orica-GreenEDGE), if unable to disrupt Alejandro Valverde’s progress to a second consecutive victory.
La Fléche represented another date in what was has been a packed programme for Alaphilippe, who began his sojourn in the Ardennes at Flèche Brabançonne (the Frenchman, unsurprisingly, gives the race its French name) and by tomorrow will have contested every race in an extended Ardennes Week. Such an unremitting schedule is merely business as usual for the 22-year-old, who has already this season finished Paris-Nice and the Volta Catalunya. If he has hit peak form in the Ardennes, it is as a consequence of such a heavy programme, rather than by design, he insists.
“I did a big block of racing at Paris-Nice and Catalunya. I had a little break, and then when you start the Spring Classics – Flèche Brabançonne, Amstel – it’s just every couple of days that you’re racing, just trying to recuperate. After this [Liége], I’ll go home for a couple of days, and then it’s Romandie and then California. At this point in the season you can’t really train – you just try to recover and sustain.”
He admits to having felt the effects of his mid-week exertions as early as Friday. Liége will be his second Monument Classic, after riding the Giro di Lombardia last year, and while he is honoured by selection for the sport’s greatest races, he does not expect to play more than a supporting role at La Doyenne. “I’m really happy to do hard races like this, but just after doing the first reconnaissance today, I realise how hard it’s going to be.”
Adaptation to the professional calendar is hard, even for the most accomplished espoir. Alaphilippe might still qualify as an under-23, but such is his talent that even the mighty Etixx-Quick-Step demand his services at some of the biggest races of the season. A win in his opening season as a professional – victory on stage four of last year’s Tour de l’Ain – rewarded his employers for their decision to promote him. It might also have given them the inkling that there is much more to come.
He is slated for the Vuelta this summer, rather than the Tour, but the addition of another talented young Frenchman to the roster at La Grande Boucle seems an inevitability, given Alaphilippe’s current trajectory. Soon, it will not only be those inside the sport who monitor his progress closely.