Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com / Cor Vos
It’s been a few years since I went hunting badgers in the Ardennes. In the course of one fairly busy day doing research for my Bernard Hinault biography, The Badger, I recall a lengthy chat with the original Blaireau, followed by another with a man viewed as his possible successor, a quiet, determined young Frenchman who’d already shown he could race with panache, who clearly had a mind of his own, who had begun to make a career outside France rather than going for the obvious place with a team at home, and had begun to perform in Grand Tours. Both those conversations had a certain resonance after Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Warren Barguil, that putative Badger in the making, finished ninth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. He was completely forgotten in the furore that accompanied a controversial finish sprint that ended in an utter pratfall for Julian Alaphilippe, who crossed the line with his arms in the air, unaware that Primoz Roglic was creeping up on his right hand side and would cross the line three inches ahead. It was a basic mistake reminiscent of the 1987 Doyenne, when Stephen Roche and Claude Criquielion started foxing in the final sprint. They were overhauled at the last by Moreno Argentin; like Roglic, he simply couldn’t believe his luck.
As if that mistake weren’t enough, King Julian was relegated to fifth for a manoeuvre that would have shamed any fourth-category, a foolish hook on Marc Hirschi – preceded by a glance to his right which suggested he knew pretty much what he was doing – which probably cost the Swiss second place and possibly robbed him of the legendary “Ardennes double.”
Where, you may well be asking, do the Badgers – actual and putative – come in? For a man once tipped as a possible successor to Hinault, “Wawa” has struggled. One good year in 2017, a French national title in 2019, and that’s about it. Looking at that, and at the record Hinault achieved just in Liege – winning in 1977 ahead of most of the best Classics riders as a virtual unknown and managing that legendary 1980 win in the snow – provides a useful amount of perspective on what Julian Alaphilippe has tried to do in the last few years, and mostly succeeded in doing.
At times, it’s felt as if Alaphilippe has single-handedly carried French cycling for the last three years. That’s not entirely fair to Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, but a quick compare and contrast between King Julian’s victory list and the relatively meager fare that Pinot and Bardet have provided makes the point. Alaphilippe is French cycling’s flagbearer. Crucially, he has won races with consistency, across a pretty broad range: stage races, time trials, one-day Classics, and of course that lengthy spell in yellow in the Tour in 2019. He’s done so under the weight of considerable expectation in a country that sets the bar pretty high in terms of cycling success. He’s done it by and large with good humor off the bike and scintillating performances on it.
Sometimes, Alaphilippe can drag a performance out of adversity, which is probably his best quality. At Milan-San Remo this year, he wasn’t at his best, yet broke away on the Poggio from a more than decent field, and was only outdone by Wout Van Aert, who, as we have subsequently found out, is pretty special. On the second Nice stage of the Tour de France, he clearly didn’t have same legs as in 2019, but he managed to win – just – ahead of Hirschi, who amusingly was quite the unknown back then. In the final week of the Tour, it can’t have been easy getting in the break each day, riding hard, and then either sitting up or getting dropped; it was all part of the plan to win the World’s and he stuck to it.
Which is why we should all cut him a little slack, while (if French) bemoaning the fact that he didn’t succeed Argentin, Eddy Merkck, Rik van Looy and Ferdi Kubler as a Doyenne winner in the rainbow stripes. To me, the way he raced in the final kilometers before he and Hirschi dragged that winning move clear smacked of a rider who is suffering from nerves. So much time spent (and so much energy wasted) sitting on the wheel of Dries Devenyns in second position, compared to the patience he showed in Imola. Look at the big turn he pulled about 2km out; in the final metres, he didn’t sprint like a confident rider. When your legs are going, the brain doesn’t function with 100 per cent clarity, which is why he pulled that foolish hook, and why he began that celebration.
Alaphilippe isn’t a machine. He doesn’t always get it right. Even the best guys don’t. Across the piece, that’s been one of the big takeouts of the relaunched post-lockdown season: Roglic falling at the last in the Tour, Wout Van Aert coming up short at the World’s after his team nailed the race, and now King Julian in what should have been his moment of triumph at Liège. These guys are human. We should savor that.