It’s a question posed on social media and in the email inbox and the the short is answer is he could but it’s a tough ask and would ruin half the fun, both his and yours. But one day he might like to try, partly to know if he can but also to fill his boots with cash.
First it’s not a new question. After he won two stages and took the mountains jersey in a convincing manner last year it was something people were asking. Why not come back in 2019 and try to compete directly with the big names on the big climbs? Now more are asking the question seeing that he was so close to a podium finish and even won a time trial. What could he do in 2020?
The simple answer is that he could become a regular contender. Replay the Tour de France again, only this time with him saving energy rather than spending it in the first ten days, add a team able to offer more support in the mountains and he’d have been fresher for the final mountain stages. Of course this counter-factual could mean he might never have taken the yellow jersey to start with and so maybe he wouldn’t have fought as hard in the Pyrenees or the time trial… but let’s park that inconvenient idea.
Now cast forward and imagine him returning with a little weight loss – easier said than done – he could turn himself into a grand tour contender with an improved power-weight ratio. A contender mind you, not a winner. Maybe he could pick off some intermediate goals like Paris-Nice or the Tour de Suisse and of all the grand tours the Vuelta is his best bet given it features shorter climbs and doesn’t venture into high altitude, he’d thrive on the rampons more than the cols.
Can you see him sitting back in Epernay and riding on the wheels for three weeks, perhaps making only one attack all month, like Steven Kruijswijk or Emanuel Buchmann? That’s even harder to imagine. It’s not his style and he’s said as much too. He has the physiology for attacking racing it’s also his mentality, for him cycling is often a game and a form of entertainment where launching attacks, exploiting descents and pleasing the crowd are very much his conception of sport. It’s fun on the Poggio but do it in France, on home roads, in July in front of giant crowds and it must be even more gratifying. If Alaphilippe stays as he is he can look forward to a career of taking the yellow jersey early in the Tour and keeping it for days. Perhaps not as long as this year but ASO’s thinking on course design is to include some punchy, hilly finishes in the opening week and with time bonuses it’s just the terrain where he thrives. Why change a winning formula?
Well, one reason is to get paid a lot more. Alaphilippe is the current world number one and recently re-signed with Deceuninck-Quickstep in a deal that saw Patrick Lefevere stretch his budget more than usual while Alaphilippe turned down higher offers. One day he might like to take the highest offer and it’s all well and good winning in Sanremo, Liège and wearing yellow but being a Tour contender is one way to boost your salary. It’s obvious yet not widely mentioned that grand tour contenders are among the best paid riders in the sport. The likes of Richie Porte and Jacob Fuglsang are thirty-something riders who have never won a grand tour but collect salaries superior to proven classics contenders and successful sprinters, for example reports say Fuglsang was holding out for a €2.4 million contract which is 20% more than Fernando Gaviria signed for when the Colombian sprinter took stages at the Tour and the yellow jersey. Now perhaps Fuglsang won’t get what he wants but the point isn’t to personalise things down to two riders more to illustrate how being a contender can make you richer than a proven winner. Alaphilippe can parlay his current contract into something even bigger by announcing a bid to become a grand tour contender.
There’s no hurry. When he sat down with France Télévisions in Paris after the final stage of the Tour de France he was asked the obvious question of whether he’d come back to win the Tour de France and his response was refreshing: “I want to discover the Tour of Flanders”. In some ways Alaphilippe’s interest in not aiming for the Tour de France could be good for cycling too as he’ll bring an audience with him, up to seven million people in France tune in each day for the Tour de France but many are unaware of the Tour of Flanders which is lucky to get one million in France.
Not everything has to revolve around the Tour de France. Over the years we’ve seen many riders asked if they could target the Tour de France as a new challenge, think Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin and Peter Sagan. Now it’s Alaphilippe’s turn and his answer is “non“… for now. He’s happy winning the classics and racing the Tour in the way he wants and it’s a successful formula, he tops the UCI rankings. We’ll see if he can expand his range though, would he think about taking, say, Paris-Nice as well as Milan-Sanremo? Could he start to think about the Vuelta or would this compromise his party plans for July? He’s 27 years old and doesn’t have to decide but once past 30 and he loses some of his punch then the economic incentives could see him think more and more about the overall classification.