Just how does a rider improve on a near-perfect season?
“It is not possible,” says Julian Alaphilippe. They may not have been the words Patrick Lefevere, his general manager at Deceuninck-Quick Step, will have wanted to hear but there is a refreshing honesty to Alaphilippe.
“I will do my best to have another great season but yes, I realise that last year was really special," he told a huddle of journalists during his team presentation in Calpe, Spain.
"A lot of quality victories – and a lot of emotions – so it will be really difficult to do it all again. But we have to try it, I will do my best.”
Following a season in which Alaphilippe won Strade Bianche – a race he described as a “piccolo monument” – Milan-Sanremo, Flèche Wallonne and two stages at the Tour de France while also spending 14 days in the leader's yellow jersey in his home race, one imagined his year could not have gone better.
And then he was awarded the prestigious Vélo d'Or award.
“I will not do Strade Bianche this year, but last year it was a really amazing experience. I was focused on this race during the winter and was happy to start the [European] season in Siena. It was amazing to see all the team around me and to attack in the finale and to play with [Jakob] Fuglsang who was really, really strong. It was one of my best memories from last year.”
Six months after sending his compatriots into paroxysms having made them believe he could become the first Frenchman since Bernard Hinault in 1985 to win the Tour de France, the 27-year-old reflects on his annus mirabilis, admitting life may never be the same again.
“People are always nice, stopping me and thanking me… more than before,” he says. “This happens more now than before, but I'm really grateful and I'm happy to make the people happy.
“I never dreamed of winning the Tour, but when I was in yellow then of course you have to think about it and fight [for the jersey]. But I always knew that the last few days in the Alps were going to be really hard for me… and it was really hard for me. I learned that it is not easy to be in the yellow jersey for 14 days in the Tour, both mentally and physically – even my bike was tired.”
Despite having sowed the seeds of hope into the minds of his countrymen – and fans of his entertaining and aggressive style of racing – Alaphilippe quashed any hopes he may return this year for a concerted crack at the general classification, though has not ruled out doing so later in his career.
“It's maybe something I will start to think about, but not this year and maybe not in two years, but I will be around 30 years old and maybe one moment I can try, but it's not my main goal for this year.”
Fortunately for Alaphilippe, he possesses a skillset that allows him to target the one-day classics as well as stage races. And all on different terrains.
“I'm not a rider who has only one way to ride,” Alaphilippe explains. “I can sprint, but I'm not [Mark] Cavendish, I'm a good climber but I'm not Christopher Froome so I have to use what I have.
“Last year at the beginning of the season I was really focused on Milan [Sanremo], I worked on my explosivity in the sprint so I think I was better in a sprint than in the mountains. But then I did a lot of training in the mountains and at altitude so during the Tour [de France] I was better in the mountains, but I lost my explosivity in the sprint.”
Though admitting he may struggle to match the glorious highs of last year, Alaphilippe is not short of goals for his new season which gets under way at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina on January 26 and, if all goes to plan, runs through to October.
“I just want to win races again,” he says. “I want to see how I feel in Paris-Nice before [the Tour of] Flanders. I also want to be good for the Ardennes and Liège[-Bastogne-Liège], and then another big block from the national championships through to the Olympics. And I hope I can manage my condition to be at the start of Giro di Lombardia.”