Several young riders broke through to challenge cycling’s established stars in 2015, but perhaps none shone as brightly in the most prestigious one-day races as 23-year-old Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe.
Finishing second in two historic Ardennes Classics as a debutant doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. On hearing that he had been voted Best Young Rider (U23) by our Rouleur Award panel of experienced cycling minds, he was stunned. “I didn’t realise the jury included such big names,” he says. “It’s an honour for me, I was very happy when I found out I’d been chosen by the magazine.”
It’s little surprise that our sages opted for the flying Frenchman. The second-year Etixx-Quick Step rider enjoyed a sensational spring, finishing seventh at the Amstel Gold Race then second at both the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
His hot streak continued; he was narrowly beaten to stage wins at the Tour of Romandie then climbed to Tour of California stage victory. Only a last-gasp time bonus from fellow prodigy Peter Sagan denied him overall victory in America.
So, what changed for Alaphilippe between 2014 and this season? “The races and above all, my role. I had more responsibility,” he says.
“Also, continuing to work to progress was important for me, seeing how I could get results on certain races. I felt the difference, that I was getting better through the year.”
Was there a Eureka moment where the confidence came and it clicked? “Yes, at Paris-Nice. I felt strong, working well every day for the yellow jersey (below), Michal Kwiatkowski. Afterwards, at the Classics, Tour of Catalunya and Romandie, I had a lot of confidence. It was a great period for me.”
Despite his fine fettle, finishing second to Alejandro Valverde at Flèche Wallonne (below) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège came as a shock. “That was a real surprise for everyone, me included,” he says, laughing. “I worked to be in form for Classics like that, to help the team; when it comes to trying for my own result, you never know.”
The 23-year-old is not the kind of rider who finds it easy to be happy with anything less than first place. “We always want to win; me, I’m a winner, I have the mentality of someone who wants to win all the time. But after a few months to reflect, I’m really happy, not disappointed for those first participations in Liège and Flèche Wallonne. I have the desire to keep working in the next years.”
What are the small things that he can improve in the next years? “I think power, confidence in myself and experience – that above all, there’s a lot of experience that’ll come with the years.”
Alaphilippe, who goes into his third year as a professional in 2016, also has ambitions to race his first Grand Tour. “I’m learning a lot with every race over the years,” he adds. “You’re never done with learning, that’s for sure.”
Bogged down by mono
Alaphilippe has already seen how transient success can be in cycling. Late summer results nosedived and energy deserted Alaphilippe, leaving him scratching his head for the answer. A doctor came up with it: mononucleosis.
“It’s a very strange feeling. You are always exhausted, even if you are resting a lot; you wake up the morning feeling as tired like you do in the evening. It’s hard for the head. I ended the season tired and disappointed with it.”
It made for a frustrating close season. “I wasn’t myself at the world championships, it didn’t feel like my legs or my normal sensations… now, I’ve really just got to look after myself. There are no solutions, just rest.”
Still tired with the virus, Alaphilippe hasn’t started training for 2016 yet. “I’ve really done nothing for a month and a half, it’s tough… every rider wants to do camps and get working. But I’ve rested well and enjoyed having my family at mine.”
“Revolted” by Paris attacks
Sport pales into comparison in the face of the tragic terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on Friday evening. “I don’t really have words for it. Horrible,” Alaphilippe says. “It really affected me, as it has all of France and the world.”
“I heard about it the following morning on TV. Incredible, I didn’t think that something like that could happen. I think that it’s not over yet either, unfortunately. It really is a horrible tragedy, something abominable.”
Though Alaphilippe calls the mid-French town of Montluçon home, his brother lives in Paris, as do many of his friends. “Everyone was shocked. We’re all deeply upset and very sad for the families and the people who died and are injured. We’re revolted, we want all that to stop.”
He has considered that professional cycling events could be targeted. “I think that nobody is protected, nobody is sheltered from that in a race. Anyone can be confronted by this kind of situation. It could be at a bicycle race, at the airport, in town, who knows.”
However, sport has a part to play in resistance and helping people to resume normality. “You’ve got to continue to live, to not stop living because of people like this,” Alaphilippe says.
“Sport, but also work and family, all the things that bring us happiness, you’ve got to continue to do. Be it cycling or the job, we’ve got to continue to keep living and fighting them. Because if we stop doing that, that’s what these people want. Through cycling, it’s also a manner of saying that we’ll continue to do what we love.”