Julian Alaphilippe calls into question his Soudal Quick-Step future and possible retirement

Two-time world champion discusses Soudal Quick-Step, the Tour Down Under and the Giro d'Italia, as he looks forward to 2024 with fresh ambition and 'grinta'

Clock10:00, Tuesday 23rd January 2024
Julian Alaphilippe was pleasantly surprised with his level at the Santos Tour Down Under

© Sprint Cycling Agency

Julian Alaphilippe was pleasantly surprised with his level at the Santos Tour Down Under

With 250m to go of stage 5 of the Santos Tour Down Under, Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) struck out for home atop Willunga Hill. For a moment it looked as though the prince of panache was the Frenchman of old, as Alaphilippe thrust his head over the bars and loosened up his shoulders for a race-winning attack we will never tire of seeing.

But it was not to be.

As he rode over the King of Willunga Hill insignia with a little more than 100m to go, over Alaphilippe's shoulder came not Richie Porte, as one might expect after a decade of domination before retirement, but the spritely figure of dsm-firmenich PostNL's Oscar Onley.

With a click of his heels, Onley was on the march to victory. Alaphilippe succumbed to defeat, eventually finishing in fourth place. Nonetheless, it was an impressive showing for the man in his contract year, with Alaphilippe bidding to reclaim his seat among the sport's elites before his current Soudal Quick-Step contract is up in 12 months' time.

But whilst many expected Alaphilippe's contract situation to hang over his head in 2024, given the couple of barren years he has endured, the 31-year-old is rather more nonchalant when assessing the importance of his upcoming campaign.

"To be honest, I took every season of my career like it’s the last one," says Alaphilippe. "I never think about ‘fuck, it’s my contract year’ or ‘oh, last year I won a lot so this year I don’t care.’ Every new season I started with grinta, like I won nothing before. I always think like this.

"To be honest, I don’t know where I will be next year, if I continue in the team [or] if I continue cycling, I don’t know."

Alaphilippe is his usual relaxed self as he sits down to speak to GCN and a roundtable of journalists at the Santos Tour Down Under. With an uninterrupted winter of training behind him, an impressive performance on Willunga Hill in his back pocket and a fresh race calendar to look forward to in 2024, the Frenchman sports a smile as he looks ahead to his 11th - and possibly final - season with Soudal Quick-Step.

"It was a really beautiful few weeks we have here and after, it will be the time to start in Europe for the Classics and a completely different mood and atmosphere and weather, but I think I am already happy now."

'A lot of times, I did efforts just to kill myself'

Heading into the Tour Down Under, there was perhaps an unfair expectation of Alaphilippe's performance. The Soudal Quick-Step team lacked another viable contender for the overall win and with Alaphilippe heading into the final year of his contract, there was a thought that said the Frenchman would come out all guns blazing.

However, it was never Alaphilippe's plan to hit top form in January. Rather, his performance on Willunga Hill came as a pleasant surprise.

"I saw the result of a good feeling. Simply, I came here with the ambition to see how I feel and I was realistic with my ambition about results, because I knew what I did during the winter," he says. "I was surprised that I can fight with the best guys until the top of the climb, it is a good surprise, to be honest."

"I knew it would be difficult to win because the guys that win here, I know they train à bloc all winter since November and even October. I knew where I am and it’s a good surprise to be there already."

What will please Alaphilippe and his Soudal Quick-Step more than his fourth place on Willunga and sixth place overall, however, is that the Frenchman was in contention to win stage 5, even if just for a moment.

It has been a long time since that could be said of Alaphilippe, with his last victory coming back at the Critérium du Dauphiné last June. Since that race, the two-time world champion had clocked up only two other top-ten placings heading into this season, and the plight of Alaphilippe dates back even further.

Once one of the peloton's serial winners alongside the likes of Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Alaphilippe has since lost his edge and holds only two WorldTour victories since his second World Championship Road Race win in 2021.

To be in the fight for a prestigious win at the Tour Down Under, then, was of great delight to Alaphilippe, who opened up about his struggles since his nasty crash at the 2022 Liège-Bastogne-Liège – perhaps the moment Alaphilippe's crown as one of the world's best slipped.

"I was in the mood to really fight, go in the red zone and really stay there," Alaphilippe reflects on Willunga Hill. "I never lost this spirit [in the past], but physically I [couldn't]. When I felt that I could not win, a lot of times I did efforts just to kill myself, because it was not funny for me to destroy myself when I knew I cannot win.

"I know myself and one year ago for sure, in this situation, I will feel directly I cannot win and I will attack or I will do two/three big efforts, explode and drop just to destroy myself."

After a couple of forgettable seasons, it sounds as though Alaphilippe is beginning to feel the sensations of old, which will come as welcome news to his legions of fans who would like nothing more than to see the Frenchman battling against the likes of Van Aert and Van der Poel for the most prestigious one-day titles this season.

There were signs that Alaphilippe was regathering himself at the end of last season and a strong performance in Coppa Bernocchi was a standout, but the Frenchman admits that the season was running out before he was able to regather his best level. Instead, his attention immediately turned to 2024 and what he would need to do over the winter to prepare himself for a comeback campaign.

"I did nothing crazy this winter, normal training, no big hours, no crazy intensity, because the most important for me was to build a good base and to improve from now to my goals," he says. "It is why I am surprised to be there [on Willunga Hill], because maybe for a lot of people, it can be a disappointment again, but for me, I take it as a really big thing."

"I was back on that way to fight for the victory with the good feeling. I was just focused to stay on the red zone and it was a long time that I didn’t fight like this at this part of the race."

'I just do my job, and Patrick Lefevere does his job'

Speculation around Alaphilippe's future surfaced heading into this season not just because he is entering the final 12 months of his contract, or because his wins have somewhat dried up in recent years, but also as a result of what looked like a fractious relationship between him and Soudal Quick-Step team boss, Patrick Lefevere.

Although Alaphilippe was once the golden child of the Quick-Step operation, having blossomed from their development team and shocked the world by finishing fifth at the 2019 Tour de France, the Frenchman seemed to have fallen out of favour.

After his Liège-Bastogne-Liège crash, the team decided not to select Alaphilippe for the 2022 Tour de France and at the end of the season, Lefevere went on record accusing his star puncheur of "hiding" behind his numerous setbacks. At a time when Alaphilippe was looking to recover from what was a season of misfortune, Lefevere publicly questioned his commitment.

In the past, such rhetoric from Lefevere has been used to josh with his star riders and act as a playful tool of motivation, or a subtle tact of contract negotiations.

But the story between Alaphilippe and Lefevere took another turn in November, when the Frenchman's cousin was let go by the team, having served as a coach since the end of 2019. Speaking to CyclismActu at the time, Franck Alaphilippe pointed to internal tension as an explanation for his departure.

"After the merger [discussions], there were tensions between Patrick Lefevere and Julian, which again made my situation a bit uncertain. So I wasn't really surprised when I heard that I wasn't allowed to stay," he said.

Read more: Julian Alaphilippe's coach let go by Soudal Quick-Step amid tensions with Patrick Lefevere

Contrary to how it may appear from the outside, however, Alaphilippe insists that his relationship with the Belgian has not deteriorated.

"To be honest, my relationship with Patrick was always the same the last few years. We always talk together when it was super good and when it was less good."

Alaphilippe won't be drawn on the tittle-tattle of public spats – "I don't care [about the comments], I just do what I have to do" – instead, the 31-year-old is focused on proving his worth on the bike before worrying about things such as contract renegotiations with his team boss.

"I think now I am really busy, I give my best every day, I know also how professional I am, so I just do my job and he does his job. I think now he is quite busy and me too, so if we have to talk together, we always do and the relationship was always ok."

Giro d'Italia debut awaits for Alaphilippe

Ever since he won two stages and the polka-dot jersey at the 2018 Tour de France, his home Grand Tour has always been synonymous with the name Julian Alaphilippe. There were heroics in 2019, with two more stage wins and 14 days spent in the hallowed yellow jersey. He came up trumps once again with stage victories at the 2020 and 2021 editions, before missing out on selection in 2022.

This year, however, Alaphilippe, rather than his team, has decided that the Tour de France will not be on his race programme. It will mark the first time since his Grand Tour debut at the 2016 Tour, that the Grand Boucle will not be his primary target for the season. But for Alaphilippe, the decision is a long time coming.

"It is mostly a decision to come from myself, because it is already a few years that I said to my team that I want to do Giro one time in my career," he says. "I never did it yet. This year I want to come back on my best level, within my head the goal [is] to be 100 per cent if I can for the Flemish Classics and especially the Tour of Flanders, with the idea to do the Giro afterwards."

Read more: Julian Alaphilippe targets Tour of Flanders victory in 2024

No doubt playing into the team's decision is their own ambitions for July, which will be to support Remco Evenepoel in his mount on a Tour de France podium finish, which might have otherwise squeezed the freedom allowed to Alaphilippe.

The Frenchman was, of course, part of Evenepoel's 2022 Vuelta a España winning side, and played a crucial role over the race's first two weeks - before he crashed out - as Evenepoel developed a buffer over Primož Roglič (Bora-Hansgrohe).

Should he return to his blistering best this season, though, Alaphilippe deserves the opportunity to be part of an aggressive Soudal Quick-Step team at a Grand Tour. After six Tours de France and two editions of the Vuelta a España have yielded seven Grand Tour stage victories, Alaphilippe will be looking to join the treble club on Giro d'Italia debut this May.

"I have the dream to win a stage, but we will have a strong team with a sprinter and a lot of opportunities," he says, before quelling the rising expectations of his maiden bow in Italy. "To be honest, I don’t think about the Giro yet, I just know that it will be nice because it is something that I will prepare [for] and give my best. I take it race after race."

Alaphilippe will join another star-studded lineup at the Giro d'Italia, who, after last year's showdown between Grand Tour champions Roglič and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers), have been able to attract Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) to the start this time around.

Read more: Tadej Pogačar to race Tour de France, Olympics, and Worlds after Giro debut

It will be a Giro debut for both Alaphilippe and Pogačar, and we can expect to see the pair go head-to-head in some of the stages which suit a rider in the puncheur ilk of the Frenchman. Alaphilippe is under no illusion that winning a stage will be an easy feat.

"For sure it’s a different race but you don’t have to think that the Giro is more easy than the Tour or more easy than the Vuelta. Even here, there are always guys who are 100 percent always in every race. I know the Giro is really one of the hardest races, I saw on the television the last few years and it is a really tough race."

After two seasons blighted by injury and misfortune, however, just to see Alaphilippe mixing it with the likes of Pogačar for race victories, be it in the Tour of Flanders or the Giro d'Italia, would be a real return to form for the 31-year-old.

At his sparkling best between 2018 and 2021, Alaphilippe was oftentimes unstoppable as he bounced his way into cycling's history books, with that exuberant style on the bike that drew so much love for the Frenchman. As he bobbed and weaved his way up mountains, or along the cobbles of the Flemish Classics, France had their hero.

For all too long, that spark has been gone from Alaphilippe, who will now race what might well be his final season with his career-long team, Soudal Quick-Step. Regathering that magic, then, is at the top of Alaphilippe's agenda as he looks to the new campaign with a renewed sense of optimism.

"It is nice to have new goals and after two difficult seasons, it is nice to choose your goal, to take your time, to go where you want to go and to be 100 per cent where you have to be, but like I said before, to be at my level 100 per cent, this is my first goal of the season. I think I have a good programme to try to make it."

Additional reporting from Matilda Price

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