Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
In the end, it was all about timing and Julian Alaphilippe’s proved to be perfect. The former Tour de France yellow jersey wearer, winner of the 2020 World Championships Road Race in Italy, showed his attacking qualities once again on the final circuit of the 2021 men’s road race in Belgium, with another lone win.
Back-to-back wins by the Frenchman in the World Championships are proof of his durability, continuing ambition and also his racing instincts. With all eyes on Wout Van Aert, Alaphilippe’s opportunism proved irresistible. He is now the eighth Frenchman to win the World title and the first to claim it twice, taking the rainbow jersey first in Imola, last autumn, and then again, in Louvain.
Appropriately, Alaphilippe’s second solo success came in Flanders, also location of one of his biggest disappointments as world champion when he collided catastrophically with a motorbike, while racing in the winning break in last year’s Ronde. This time however, even the few unruly Belgians, tossing beer and insults in his path as he rode clear to another memorable victory, could not deter him from sealing a spectacular win.
In many ways, this was an unexpected success, even by Alaphilippe himself who admitted afterwards that he had “never imagined I’d be leaving with the rainbow jersey.”
And yes, given his recent form, Van Aert had been everybody’s pick. Alaphilippe, well, he always has a go, sometimes it works out, but really how often in the last year or so did he follow through and take the win? That perspective however ignores the fact that he is an athlete made for the biggest of stages.
Over the past year, he has been among the most watchable rainbow jersey wearers and remains among the most charismatic and unpredictable riders in the peloton. Look no further than a week after his success in Imola.
With Liege-Bastogne-Liege seemingly won, he lifted his arms too soon and ceded victory to a surprised Primoz Roglic.
That embarrassment was short-lived though, and a week later he took victory in Flèche-Brabanconne, even though once again, he had lifted his arms a little too hastily.
Fast forward to this year’s Tour de France and, after becoming a father, he was the star of the first stage, taking the win and the first maillot jaune of the race. Yet the rest of his Tour was an uneven, mixed bag with Mark Cavendish’s comeback taking both the limelight and pole position in his team and the French media even accusing Alaphilippe of attacking too freely and too often.
In the rivalry between Van Aert and Matthieu Van der Poel, Alaphilippe has sometimes — as at last year’s Ronde — been the gooseberry. In Flanders, however the pair were reduced to onlookers as their challenges failed to materialise and Alaphilippe’s racing instincts took over. In fact, for the Dutch in particular, both this weekend’s men’s and women’s road race were an anti-climax.
The Frenchman’s guile and panache has now made him a member of a pretty exclusive club of riders who have retained their world titles. He joins Belgians Georges Ronsse, (1928 and 1929), Rik Van Steenbergen, (1956 and 1957), and Rik Van Looy, (1960 and 1961), Italian duo Gianni Bugno (1991 and 1992) and Paolo Bettini (2006 and 2007) and Slovakian Peter Sagan (2015 and 2016) as world champions with back to back wins.
Afterwards, the Frenchman acknowledged that his distinctive racing style could sometimes backfire, even if it also brought him outstanding and spectacular success.
“I take a lot of pleasure to ride like this,” Alaphilippe said. “I don’t want to become a robot. I want to attack, with panache. I want to give everything to try and win and it’s even more beautiful when you have the rainbow jersey on.”