And so another chapter in the colourful career of Julian Alaphilippe is written. Only two races into his reign as world champion, he’s already taken a victory in one and placed fifth in the other. But, in a twist that is at the heart of why we love this sport, he should have won the race that he didn’t and lost the one that he won. Are you following at the back?
That’s not to say that there wasn’t last-gasp drama (again) involving Alaphilippe. He sat up early, albeit less prematurely than he did in Liège on Sunday, to celebrate winning Wednesday’s Brabantse Pijl, seemingly unaware that Mathieu van der Poel was rapidly closing in on him. “I still left a bit of suspense on the line, which is good for the show,” he said. Based on his somewhat hot-headed tweets, I’m not entirely sure that Deceuninck-Quick Step team manager Patrick Lefevere puts entertaining spectators above race wins, Julian, but I’m happy to be wrong.
The Alaphilippe – van der Poel has quickly become a box office battle. Their final showdown of the season, at the Tour of Flanders a week on Sunday, cannot come soon enough. If the world champion claimed that he arrived at Brabantse without any pressure, getting his first victory in the rainbow jersey so soon after his imperious performance at Imola could make him even more dangerous come the Ronde.
34KM TO GO
The race ignited on the penultimate ascent of the Moskesstraat. Just as the peloton was about to catch the final three riders from the day’s breakaway, Zdeněk Štybar attacked midway up the cobbled climb with Alaphilippe in his wheel. Štybar’s initial acceleration was incredibly impressive; the rest of the bunch quickly trailed the Deceuninck duo by 15 metres or so. But, triggering the head-to-head battle that was to follow until the finish, van der Poel managed to bridge across to Alaphilippe over the top of the 550-metre climb. Data provided to the host broadcaster showed that the world champion impressively averaged 580 watts and 20km/h on the Moskesstraat.
28KM TO GO
Tim Wellens, winner of the race in 2018, was the first to attempt to bridge across to the leaders. He got within seven seconds of them before fading on the Holstheide. Having burned all his matches, Wellens ended up finishing 49th after briefly working for his Lotto Soudal team-mate Tosh Van der Sande.
However, three riders did succeed in joining Alaphilippe and van der Poel up front shortly after: 2017 victor Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-McLaren), Omar Fraile (Astana) and Benoit Cosnefroy (AG2R-La Mondiale). Five then became six in time for the start of the final 23-kilometre lap, as Michal Kwiatkowski was able to bridge across to the leaders following an almighty turn from his INEOS team-mate Luke Rowe on the Schavei, the climb which is used for the race’s finish.
20KM TO GO
The rule of the six didn’t last long as another sextet – including Van der Sande and Arkea-Samsic’s Warren Barguil (who quietly placed fourth at Flèche Wallonne and ninth in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège) – made it across to the leaders. The predictable attack of the day award goes to Italian Alessandro Covi (UAE-Team Emirates) who, in line with the teachings of the cycling tactics textbook, jumped out of the breakaway seconds after the two groups came together.
Handily for Alaphilippe and van der Poel, the riders who were previously in that first chase group included their team-mates Dries Devenyns and Petr Vakoč. Devenyns set off in pursuit of Covi and quickly made it across, before van der Poel’s domestique Vakoč and Barguil joined together to form a short-lived quartet. Within a kilometre-and-a-half the leading group regrouped.
16KM TO GO
In last year’s race, Alaphilippe used the final ascent of the Hertsrtraat (700m, 4.5%, cobbled at the bottom) to split a reduced peloton. Only three riders followed him, one of whom was van der Poel. So the reigning Dutch champion must have had an idea as to what could happen on the climb this afternoon.
The initial injection of pace came from Van der Sande. Colbrelli followed but was clearly at his limit, while Alaphilippe looked comfortable but focused. Cleverly, Devenyns, having eased off his team-mate’s wheel, then veered out of the gutter and onto the climb’s cobbles, leaving van der Poel and Kwiatkowski a small gap to bridge.
Alaphilippe took full advantage of Devenyns’ move by going over the top of Van der Sande on the false (tarmacked) flat. Once again, only one rider (van der Poel) had the strength to bridge across to the Frenchman, leaving little doubt that the top two from last year’s race were the also strongest duo in Vlaams-Brabant today.
Cosnefroy, Kwiatkowski and Covi were instrumental in shutting down this move. However, the attritional nature of the race left just seven riders in contention (Colbrelli and Devenyns also made it across) approaching the next climb.
11.1KM TO GO
Kwiatkowski led the leaders onto the Moskesstraat for the final time but come the top, the race-winning move had gone clear. Alaphilippe instigated it, beginning his acceleration barely metres on from where Štybar had propelled him into the race lead a little over 20 kilometres earlier. Van der Poel again had to make a big effort to follow the world champion, having been a wheel back when Alaphilippe attacked. Second at Flèche a week ago, Cosnefroy once again proved that he’s developing into a very good one-day rider by forcing his way into the leading group.
Colbrelli and Covi made it to within just five seconds of the leaders at the start of the penultimate climb, the Holstheide. However, in the space of the kilometre-long rise, that gap had doubled. They were eventually joined by the other seven chasers but were unable to close a 17-second gap in the final six-and-a-half kilometres.
The inability of the chase group to make any inroads into the leaders’ advantage shows that the trio up front continued to ride cohesively. But for the last eight kilometres, it was notable that Cosnefroy was contributing shorter turns than Alaphilippe and van der Poel. He also missed one with 2.8 kilometres remaining and then another one approximately 2,000 metres from the line.
Van der Poel won last year’s race by riding calmly yet authoritatively in the final kilometre. He led the four-man group, which contained only one noted sprinter (Michael Matthews), for around three-quarters of the closing 1,000 metres. Crucially, he was at the head of the quartet as they turned left onto the finishing straight with a little under 200 metres remaining. This allowed him to put his foot down exiting out of the bend and pick his preferred sprinting line. A comfortable victory followed, so much so that he was able to sit up some 25 metres from the line to celebrate.
All this makes the way he lost the race on Wednesday incredibly surprising. Again, he looked almost nonchalant as he led the trio towards the final corner and was quick to respond when Cosnefroy attacked out of it. But instead of firing up his sprint with 125 metres remaining, he looked back at Alaphilippe and sat back down in the saddle. Here the race falls into the world champion’s hands beautifully. Alaphilippe kicks and van der Poel gets boxed in. The Dutchman finally moves into clear air some 50 metres out but not even a slightly premature celebration from the man in the rainbow jersey (sound familiar?) can earn him the win.
Alaphilippe is no slouch in reduced bunch sprints after difficult races – he wouldn’t have won last year’s Milan-Sanremo or his Tour stage in Nice a few weeks ago if he was. But there can be little doubt that van der Poel lost the race today. The way he almost wiped out the bike-length gap he trailed the Frenchman by with just 75 metres remaining unequivocally proves that he was the fastest rider. Why did he let Cosnefroy start the sprint? Why did he hesitate on the finishing straight? Not that you’ll hear Alaphilippe complaining. After his erratic ending to Liège on Sunday, perhaps the world champion deserved a little good fortune.
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Main photo: SWpix.com / Cor Vos