Julian Alaphilippe, France’s humble heir to the cycling throne
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Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe became the darling of the nation when he wore the coveted yellow jersey on Bastille Day – France’s national holiday. The exuberant cyclist is known for his energetic and determined spirit both on and off the bike.
“This will be one of the most beautiful moments of my career,” said French cyclist Julian Alaphilippe, after winning the coveted yellow jersey at the Tour de France for the first time last Monday. “Even if I don’t keep this jersey for long, this is a moment that I’ll never forget.”
Little did the 27-year-old former military cyclist know that, after losing the coveted shirt gifted each day to the fastest overall rider to Giulio Ciccone during the sixth stage of the competition, he would regain the title – and the jersey – on the eve of Bastille Day, France’s national holiday.
The darling of the nation wore the shirt with pride across the hills of southern France on Sunday, hardly struggling as he held onto the honour for the next 48 hours. Alaphilippe is similarly expected to cruise through Wednesday’s 167-km flat stretch to Toulouse after a much-needed day of rest on Tuesday. But he didn't always seem destined to be a cycling legend.
A family affair
Growing up in Allier, central France, Alaphilippe was always overflowing with energy, but his parents were confident he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a drummer. “Juju,” as the young boy was often called at home, performed alongside his brother and parents on the streets of Montluçon during France’s national day of music. His parents, Jacques and Catherine, even enrolled their eldest son in a music school, but ultimately, Alaphilippe would trade in a career defined by the speed of his hands for one powered by the strength of his feet.
“Learning solfeggio, that was even worse than school!” Alaphilippe, who left school at 16, told French daily Le Parisien. “I could never concentrate in a classroom, I was always too hyperactive.”
“He was a kid that moved a lot, borderline unruly,” confirmed his cousin and fellow cyclist, Franck Alaphilippe, in the same interview. “But sport transformed him. It gave him somewhere to channel all that energy.”
Although cycling may not have been on his parents' minds as a career option for their son, the activity was an integral part of Alaphilippe’s relationship with his younger brother Bryan.
“We lived in a city and so we biked around together all the time,” Bryan told Le Parisien in 2015, the same year he joined l’Armée de terre, the French military cycling team that his brother trained with three years earlier.
“Julian and I have always been super close,” Bryan added. “When he wanted to do cycling seriously, I followed him.”
Starting out in cyclo-cross racing, Julian Alaphilippe quickly proved himself a talented rider, finishing second in the Junior World Cyclo-Cross Championships when he was only 17. His cousin Franck pointed out that, unlike many cyclists born into the sport, the young pro owes his rapid ascent to hours of arduous training.
“Julian pushed himself to the max, but it forced him to learn discipline,” said Franck. “He trained in the backyard, or on the track running through our neighbourhood. Sometimes, his dad would follow behind him in the car at night so that he could train by the glow of the headlights.”
At 19 years old, Alaphilippe was eager to make the transition into road cycling and go professional. Despite his cyclo-cross success, however, "Juju" needed to prove himself before any major team would give him a shot.
“He was too young for me to pay him a full salary,” said Patrick Lefevere, Alaphilippe’s future manager who at first rejected the young cyclist. “We weren't yet aware of his skills, how he would react when the pressure was on, when the whole team was counting on him.”
Instead, Julian joined L'Armée de terre, a one-time cycling team sponsored by the French army. After a successful year in 2012, Lefevere reached out to offer Julian a spot on Etixx-iHNed, the development team just one step below the pros.
“A year later when I created my reserve team, I hired Julian at minimum wage,” said Lefevere, who then upgraded Alaphilippe to Deceuninck-Quick Step (then Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in 2014. The cyclist has stuck with the Belgian professional team ever since.
The official Tour de France website declares that Lefevere’s team “has found a worthy heir in Julian Alaphilippe", who since joining Quick Step has become two-time champion of the Flèche Wallonne. In his second-ever Tour de France in 2018, the prolific cyclist also claimed the first Alpine stage, the first Pyrenean stage and the mountains classification.
A modest hero
A determined but playful competitor, Alaphilippe has been noted for his humble response to his countless victories.
“Loulou,” as he’s called by teammates and friends, never celebrates a win without praising his team, with a tweet from March 18 serving as just one of countless examples of the gratitude that decorates his profile page.
“Nothing would be possible without my team,” he writes. “Bravo guys. This reflects yet again the strength that makes us who we are.”
Even when it comes to the enemy, Alaphilippe places no limits on the value of teamwork.
During the evening of Saturday’s race, with the prospect of the yellow jersey mere minutes away, Alaphilippe was less focused on earning status and glory than he was on helping Thibaut Pinot, one of the star members of rival cycling team Groupama–FDJ.
"I went for it on the last climb and then I saw Thibaut. We looked at each other and we just knew, we didn't even have to speak," Alaphilippe told AFP.
In an act of generosity, the more confident downhill rider guided fellow French cyclist Pinot down the final stretch towards Saint Etienne.
"He had his interests and I had mine,” added Alaphilippe, “but it was a moment of great beauty." And Alaphilippe got exactly what he wanted, sporting the yellow jersey with pride and graciously accepting his title as the new darling of cycling fans nationwide.
“This has truly touched my heart,” Alaphilippe told sports magazine L’Équipe after his victory Saturday night. “In the moment when I won, I wanted to thank absolutely everyone, so instead I’ll say it now: A massive thank you, everybody!”
The cycling star’s family confirm that “Juju's” fame hasn't gone to his head.
“His humble origins are what gives him the drive to keep progressing”, said his cousin Franck.
“After a race, his first call is always to Mum and Dad,” adds his mother Catherine. “And when he’s on the phone, it’s like he’s 16 again. Nothing has changed.”
This year’s trophy boy?
Fans and experts alike are wondering just how long Alaphilippe will be able to maintain his lead.
“I think Julian will keep the yellow jersey until the Pyrénées,” predicted cycling veteran and fellow Frenchman Richard Virenque in an interview with L’Équipe. “He might even be able to keep it for longer – the problem is that his team isn’t strong enough for a race three weeks long. Deceuninck-Quick Step is suited for day or even week-long races but beyond that, things get tricky.”
Xabier Artetxe, coach of the British team Ineos, is equally dubious that Alaphilippe will hang onto the yellow jersey through the fated southwestern mountain range.
“Alaphilippe is often incredibly strong during endurance tests of six to 12 minutes, even 20 minutes as we saw at La Planche des Belles Filles,” commented Artetxe, even conceding that the French cyclist has improved significantly on some of the longer hilly stretches. “But a 40-minute long uphill attack, two or three times in the same day? That’s another story.”
Though Artetxe says that he’d be “surprised” if Alaphilippe can keep up with the strongest climbers, fellow French cyclist Romain Bardet was quick to remind the public that the biking virtuoso is known for his ability to achieve the unexpected.
“He never ceases to surprise,” Bardet told French daily Le Monde, “and especially to surprise himself.”
And yet no one is a stronger critic of Alaphilippe than the yellow jersey star himself.
“I didn’t come here planning to win the Tour, and the desire to win didn’t magically appear just because I’m wearing the yellow jersey right now,” Alaphilippe explained to Le Monde. “I think I’ve expended far more energy in this first week than the leaders of the general class. When the goal is to win, you have to move strategically, conserving energy where you can and counting every stroke of the pedal. So far, that’s not at all what I’ve been doing.”
As a sort of unofficial mentor to “Loulou” who confesses to calling him regularly (“He’s my darling… I try to give him tips but to be honest, he doesn’t need it!”), Virenque is crossing his fingers for an Alaphilippe win by 2023.
“To win the Tour, you need a strong armada around a leader,” he said. “So Patrick Lefevere needs to recruit riders who can better surround and keep up with Julian Alaphilippe. If he can do that, I promise you that Julian will win the Tour de France in the next three years.”
Alaphilippe, however, has no grand aspirations for this race or future ones, aside from the simple but strenuous feat of doing his best.
“My only dream right now is to take the jersey as far as possible,” he told Le Monde plainly. “The day that I feel like I’ve hit my limit and that I can’t push myself any further, I’ll ease up a little bit and try to recuperate. Then my goal will become the same as last year’s, to enjoy myself during the breakaways.”
But for the moment, Alaphilippe’s goal is clear: “Test my limits. Push myself. Make good progress on the mountains. Race against the clock. And continue to ride for the yellow jersey day after day.”