Philippe Auclair, best known for his writing on football and cricket, is a passionate cycling fan, who started his professional life commentating on road racing for a French TV station.
He, like so many others across the world, was captivated by the long spell in yellow enjoyed by Julian Alaphilippe during the 2019 Tour de France.
In this portrait of the young French star, Auclair gives fascinating detail to the unique circumstances of Alaphilippe’s upbringing, what it is about him which compels him to race in the manner he does, and what this represents for a nation starved of recent greatness.
For, as he notes, like the recently deceased Raymond Poulidor, Alaphilippe is from La France profonde. "I know that I," Auclair concludes, "a Londoner for three decades, became a Frenchman again during the Tour."
The odds seemed distinctly, well, odd. Almost Headingley 1981-odd. The world’s top-ranked cyclist was 200-1 to finish in the Tour’s top three, despite the absences of pre-race favourites Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin at the grand départ in Brussels and the consensus that this was going to be one of the most open Grandes Boucles in a generation. It was as if the cycling world had decided that Julian Alaphilippe was too much of one thing (a barely controllable, borderline-crazy baroudeur) and too little of another (a rouleur-grimpeur capable of staying with the best specialists in high-altitude stages, of which there would be plenty this year) to entertain any hope of upsetting the established order. Julian himself seemed to agree. ‘I’m not even thinking of the GC,’ he kept saying, his fans nodding in the background: their Julian had few equals, if any, when it came to blowing a race open; when it came to controlling it … well, he’d never shown any evidence that he’d be capable of doing it. Or that he even had the inclination to do so.
It was as if the magnificent form he’d shown all season counted for nothing. He’d won three Classics, the Primavera among them, as well as stages in the Vuelta a San Juan (including a time trial), the Tour of the Basque Country, a bunch sprint at Tirreno–Adriatico and further success at the Critérium du Dauphiné. As if his constant, linear progression from outstanding cyclocross specialist to terror of the peloton did not signal that here was a rider of exceptional class. What’s more, at 27, he was only now entering the best years of his career. He was at the age when many riders who would go on to become Tour winners had just started to reveal their true potential – Bradley Wiggins and Geraint Thomas to name but two: champions who had achieved far less on the road at this stage of their development than the Frenchman had done already.
It didn’t make sense to me. Why wasn’t Julian even spoken of as an outsider, when Vincenzo Nibali could get a mention? The answer was simple: Julian was Julian, and that was that. But what ‘that’ really was we only found out in the blessed three weeks that followed. By the end on the Champs-Élysées, ‘Julian is Julian’ meant something quite different even to those of us who’d been besotted with him since he brought glorious chaos to the 2015 Ardennes Classics.The fifth-placed rider – the bookmakers had got it right after all, if by a whisker – had won the Tour, somehow.
Julian was not born into a cycling family, even if he was mentored from an early age by his cousin Franck (himself a decent amateur rider), and if his younger brother Bryan, a sprinter, has also become a professional with Pro Immo Nicolas Roux, and if the youngest of the three siblings, 15-year-old Leo, rides for the local team where Julian debuted, l’Entente Cycliste Montmarault- Montluçon.There were no cycling posters in Julian’s boyhood bedroom, no July afternoons spent glued to the television screen when the Tour was on, no hero worship of les géants de la route; true heroes were hard to find on the slopes of l’Alpe d’Huez at the time, it should be said. In 2010, the year in which Julian achieved his first major success – second place in the Junior World Cyclocross Championships – Alberto Contador finished first in the Tour and Denis Menchov third, both men being disqualified for doping by the Court of Arbitration for Sport a year and a half later. The family’s true passion was music, not cycling, anyway.
Father Jacques, known as ‘Jo’, is now retired but became something of a celebrity in the region when his six-piece band was once invited to be the opening act for a Johnny Hallyday concert. It is quite difficult to find a British equivalent for the kind of groupe de bal that Jo led on countless nights in the community halls of the villages and small market towns of the Allier and the Berry. ‘Pub group’ won’t do. Their repertoire would have touched on pop and rock’n’roll on occasion, but mostly stuck to the French variétés genre. Nor was Jo a travelling 20th-century troubadour, an itinerant, guitar-carrying poet. In the pre-internet, rural France of the 1990s, these bands helped stave off the boredom of the small-town working class on Saturday nights, sometimes showing up at local discotheques, others on the village square or at wedding receptions, wherever there was money to be made playing covers of the hits of the country’s most popular singers. It might not have been that glamorous but it was a job (though not the best-paid job, it should be added). Summer holidays abroad were out of the question, and the family had to wait until Julian was in his teens to take him to the seaside for the first time. Until then, it had been enough to visit the campsite by the étang de Goule, a small lake situated at the border of the Cher and Allier départements, a little under forty miles from the family’s modest home in Montluçon, where the boys would spend their days sliding into the cold water, swimming, boating, fishing and more generally fooling around with their friends without a care in the world. To hear Julian speak of these holidays today is to hear someone evoke paradise.
The eldest of the Alaphilippe brothers could have joined his father’s band, despite his reluctance to learn solfeggio (‘even more boring than school’ in his own appreciation). He had a good ear, excellent hand–feet coordination and became a bit of a sensation in Montluçon, where it is said that traffic stopped when it passed the stage where the teenage Julian was playing the drums during the Fête de la musique, the festival that is held everywhere in France on 21 June. His choice of instrument was revealing – anything to spend the inexhaustible energy that flowed through him, whom all of his friends describe as ‘hyperactive’, then as now. This included cycling (but not rugby, which he tried once; one match was enough for him to discover that his slight frame did not make him a natural for that game). It was not the kind of regimented cycling he’d have practised at a local club (even if he also did that from the age of eight), but the dare-you wheelies and slides of proper BMX bandits, which is exactly what Julian and Bryan were, causing some trepidation among the locals as they spent hour upon hour practising new tricks. It was about fun, le plaisir, the joy, the risk-taking, the fooling about with friends and, soon enough, the adrenalin of victory. Wondrously it has never ceased to be so: we who see him racing today could have guessed it easily enough, as it still is about all of these silly, priceless things for him. The champion is still the kid who, at the age of 11, told his mum that he felt like saying hello to his uncle in Saint-Amand- Montrond, jumped on his oversized bicycle, a bottle of water slipped in his rucksack, rode the 50km that separated him from ‘Tonton’ and then phoned home to tell an astonished mother that he’d arrived and was safe and well. ‘I think this is when my parents really understood that I was madly hungry for it,’ he told the French magazine Pédale.
As it got more ‘serious’, and the can’t-sit-still kid showed that he could ride harder and faster than most in his region, the family purchased – on credit – a second-hand cyclocross bike that, while far too big for either brother, would be used by Julian and Bryan, the former having to raise the saddle by several notches when it was his turn to use it, as the younger Alaphilippe always raced first. ‘For me, it was like a Ferrari, it didn’t kill us,’ is Julian’s way of putting it. When he reached 16, the time to leave school, he naturally chose a two-year apprenticeship in a cycle shop, where he learned all there is to be learned about the mechanics of the machine that would transform him into a national hero. His talent was such that he’d already represented France in international cyclocross competitions by then, but this made no difference to the way he was treated by the shop’s owner, a family friend who demanded that his apprentice turned up on time at work on Monday mornings, regardless of which country he’d spent the weekend racing in. Julian never disappointed him.
Everyone who came across him at the time seems to have their own story to tell about this teenager who was unlike any other ‘with his old bike and his four-year-old helmet’, as described by Steve Chainel, now the boss of the Chazal-Canyon team. Julian’s diet left a lot to be desired; a former teammate, Julien Gonnier, told how he had once surprised Alaphilippe about to wolf down a tartine of Nutella after a team dinner – in the middle of a competition, of course. In 2010, when some doctors told him that his future in cycling was in doubt after he’d suffered a serious knee injury, with no pro team ready to risk taking him on, despite his second place in the 2009 Junior World Cyclocross Championships, he signed on for the French army club in Saint-Germain-en- Laye, a stone’s throw from the PSG training ground. He lived in barracks there for three years, at the end of which – thanks to the support of an understanding officer, adjutant David Lima da Costa – he’d recovered to such a degree that he beat all records in the evaluation tests set up for him by Patrick Lefevere, the general manager of the Omega Pharma-Quick-Step, who signed him on the spot.Yes, Julian Alaphilippe’s parabola in the world of cycling is distinctly eccentric.
He did not have a wattage calculator installed on his bike until he was 25. At the same time, he was also ready to inflict torment on himself on his machine, which led some coaches to cut down on his preparation schedule, as they knew Alaphilippe would double the prescribed dose anyway. In 2016, still convalescing from a bout of glandular fever that had forced him to abandon the previous year’s world championships midway through the race, his eagerness to regain fitness was such that he covered 315km in a single training sortie, despite it being one of the very first steps in his rehabilitation programme. Julian Alaphilippe was born hungry – hungry for victory, for the unique explosion of joy when crossing the line arms aloft, but also hungry for hunger’s sake.
The third stage of the 2019 Tour de France was tailor-made for a puncheur like Alaphilippe, with its rolling profile, its sharp, short, category-3 and 4 climbs.The last of these, the Côte de Mutigny, hit 12.2% over a 900-metre segment – the perfect launching pad for a rider who so loves the murs of the Ardennes Classics. So much so, in fact, that he’d already told everyone that he intended to attack that day and gave himself a good chance of winning. It was an opinion shared by almost everyone in the peloton and those who followed them. Julian was as good as his word: he caught up with escapee Tim Wellens, left him for dead at the top of the côte, and arrived in Épernay 26 seconds ahead of the bunch – a large enough advantage for him to be the first French rider to claim the yellow jersey since Tony Gallopin five years previously.
What followed has passed into legend. The acceleration at the Planche des Belles Filles (where it had been predicted he would ‘crack’), too late for making up the time needed to prevent Giulio Ciccone from taking the maillot jaune, but brutal enough to gain a few seconds on Quintana, Fuglsang and Bernal. The late attack in stage 8 to Saint-Étienne, where he reclaimed the lead. The stupendous one-two of stages 13 and 14, with first place in the time trial, and second – behind Pinot – to the top of Tourmalet, one of the Tour’s holiest climbs. Alaphilippe had held on. Alaphilippe had actually gained time on Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk and the others. Alaphilippe was a week away from accomplishing the unthinkable, despite having no domestique to pace him up the cols. This was supposed to be impossible, the equivalent of a T20 slogger scoring a Test triple-century on a wearing pitch against the best bowling on the planet. My ‘finish in the top three’ bet was beginning to look like a sound investment.
But how had the impossible come to pass? Naturally, while almost all of France (and not just France, in fact) had fallen in love with its daring new champion, there were quite a few who, with a wink and a raised eyebrow, asked that very question – ‘how had the impossible come to pass?’ – expecting all of us to guess the obvious answer.This was cycling, after all. A guy who can’t climb sprints up the Tourmalet. A guy who can’t time-trial beats Thomas and everyone else against the clock. Another wink. Another raised eyebrow. It’s quite clear what your champ is up to, you gullible fools. Everybody knows it.
It would be tempting at this point to name some of these men who attempted to pour poison in the cup we were raising to Alaphilippe’s success. I certainly haven’t forgotten them, particularly the one who sold his ‘doubts’ (‘certainties’, in fact) to television chat shows and who is well known for having been himself linked to one of the worst offenders in the business. Le Monde thought it a good idea to publish an especially snide piece about the use of ketones – a legal supplement – by the Deceuninck riders, which also managed to equate the lack of ‘positive’ drugs tests on the Tour with a lack of seriousness in the fight against doping in the peloton.
They’d got it all wrong, in substance as in timing. The guy who couldn’t climb had (how could they have forgotten?) won two mountain stages in the previous Tour – one at Le Grand-Bornand in the Alps, the other at Bagnères-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees – earning himself the polka-dot jersey, which he’d also claimed in the Critérium du Dauphiné preceding the 2019 Tour. He’d trained at altitude for the first time in his life. He’d shed weight for the single purpose of being even more competitive on the climbs, again for the first time in his life. The profile of the time trial in Pau had suited him to a T, with a steep uphill section at the finish, where his astonishing capacity to accelerate on the toughest of ramps allowed him to create a decisive gap on Geraint Thomas. He’d won a very similar TT in the 2017 edition of Paris–Nice, ahead of riders who were supposed to be vastly superior to him in this discipline: Alberto Contador, Michael Matthews and Richie Porte. The ‘impossible’ had never been unattainable, especially when taking into account the most potent of performance-enhancers: the maillot jaune. Just ask Thomas Voeckler, another puncheur (though nowhere near as talented as Alaphilippe) who found the resources to stay with the very best climbers to the Plateau de Beille and Luz Ardiden in the 2011 Tour, only losing the precious tunique three stages before the final dash on the Champs-Élysées.
The cynics soon had no bitter bone left to chew and spit out to the public. Alaphilippe didn’t crack or surrender, but sheer mental and physical exhaustion finally caught up with him, right when he’d started to believe he could achieve the miracle himself. Tongue hanging, shoulders rocking, swearing at himself, he was distanced in the last two Alpine stages. Time after time, he’d found himself isolated at the front of the race, surrounded by Team Ineos, Jumbo-Visma and Movistar climbers, until the tens of thousands of voices cheering him forwards were no longer enough to sustain him. He might have held on in a different year, on a less mountainous Tour, but not this time. This was the price he had to pay for his generosity.
In that, if he must be a musketeer, he should not be d’Artagnan but Porthos, even if his physique is more Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn than Gérard Depardieu. D’Artagnan, for all his panache and brio, is also capable of meanness and has a sourness in him that is the fruit of an ambition that, ultimately, does not rise above the mediocre. By contrast, the huge Porthos, for all his follies, represents all that is ‘good’ in a good soul, even unto death.When Alaphilippe states that nothing is dearer to him than ‘giving happiness to people’ – as he did when he offered his yellow jersey to a child shivering with cold at the end of the Valloire stage – the fools are those who choose not to believe him. There are not many sportsmen or women you would trust in such a way, only those who have the unique gift of sharing their joy and their pain with their public; and in cycling, the pain counts just as much as anything. Luis Ocaña was one of these riders whom we suffered with, as was Raymond Poulidor before him. Like the farmer’s son from the Limousin, Alaphilippe is a child of the France éternelle, the France profonde, which – even in the 21st century – retains such an allure in French minds. I know that I, a Londoner for three decades, became a Frenchman again during the Tour. It’s not just being reminded of the beauty of my native country by those loving helicopter-camera shots that caress every curve of the Vosges mountains and linger on the stonework of another castle or monastery in a region I swear I’ll visit one day. It’s a communion with an older, better (or so we’d like to think) self, which has the power to move us to tears at times. Alaphilippe fits in this emotional landscape as neatly as the horses galloping in a field next to the ribbon of riders. There haven’t been many such riders and, to be frank, until he placed his own brand of dynamite under the Tour caravan, not many thought we’d see another any time soon.
The lack of credit and appreciation that Sky and Team Ineos have in countries other than Britain isn’t solely due to the contempt in which their methods are held by traditionalists and romantics – ‘minimal gains’, welcome to the dream! – and the way in which their tactical mastery, the thoroughness of their preparation, and their huge financial resources combine to create a machine that aims not to compete against but to crush their supposed rivals by eliminating all chance of failure. It’s also that, following in the wake of Lance Armstrong, the cruellest of riders, they’d seemingly erased suffering from a sport that lives by it, at least in its own mythology. Alaphilippe, in those last mountain stages, was nothing but pain (and its corollary, courage) and by taking us along, through each excruciating metre of the ascents, he also humanised those who rode alongside and ahead of him. What a gift this has been to us, to the Tour and to cycling.
It is not sure that Alaphilippe will ever come that close again to becoming the first French Tour winner since Bernard Hinault. The peculiar context of this edition, which lacked a clear patron, presented an opportunity that might be denied to him in the coming years, especially now that the most powerful team in the world has found another leader in the prodigious Egan Bernal. The Tour organisers will have their say in this, obviously. We still do not know what the 2020 itinerary has in store, except that its first two stages, both of them loops in the hilly Niçois hinterland, should suit the Frenchman. As to the rest, we’ll have to wait. And how could he top what he’s already achieved, which is riding the greatest ever individual Tour by a loser in living memory? By winning it, and nothing else. But that is surely impossible ... isn’t it?