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Could Alaphilippe keep his title?

Last year’s world champion at Imola, Julien Alaphilippe does not hold the same stature this year in Belgium. He has little hope, but will struggle to retain his title this Sunday.

By winning at Imola a rainbow jersey for the world champion, a year ago, Julien Alaphilippe put an end to a 24-year shortage in the Blues. If he wins again in Louvain, this Sunday, he will be even better and become the only Frenchman to retain his title. He will join, in cycling history, Belgians Van Loi and Van Steenbergen, Italians Bugno and Bettini, and Slovakian Sagan.

But Alaphilippe has been careful to avoid comparisons with his title, which he won last year, as much as possible. “We’re resetting the meters. It’s a new world championship, with a new race to do, on a different track and with a different team.” One example suffices: of the eight riders in Italy, we only find Alaphilippe and Madouas this weekend in Belgium.

Very easy course

The Imola Boxing Race also leaves room, this time, for a kind of Tour of Flanders necessarily intended for the residents of Flanders, those who love cobblestones. “The possibilities are not intense and challenging enough for Julien, France team coach, Thomas Voekler admitted. But a bike race is not just a track: it is the track, the distance traveled, the mass, the opposition, the placement, the details like the pavement or the bulkhead that protrude a little…”

Julian Alaphilippe’s experience on the Flanders, in particular, requires caution. The Frenchman loves these races and has been impressive at times on the Tour of Flanders. But the odds are more difficult, and, above all, he could not play the leading roles until the end. Thrown to the ground after coming into contact with a motorbike in 2020, too tight physically in 2021, Auvergne is still in the discovery phase in Flanders.

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Favorite, lots of strangers

The fact remains that behind the great candidate Wout Van Aert, who will have to bear the weight of the race and the expectations of the public, the Frenchman appears in a second chariot, with individuals such as Mathieu Van der Poel, Tom Pidcock and Peter Sagan, or impressive groups such as those in Italy or Denmark . Victory can also set him free. “I’m still motivated, but I also have less stress, and less tension,” he says. “I’m more relaxed in my approach.”

Within the France team, Alaphilippe also has the ability to bring people together. He is the undisputed No. 1 and knows Kavanaugh and Senchal well, for example, as his teammates all season long. “He’s already been the world champion, three times in the yellow jersey on the Tour, he has nothing else to prove but he always wants to do well. He knows how to run, he has the experience and we trust him,” says Sénéchal.

In the meantime, the blues leader knows he’ll be expected. A rider for the Deceuninck-Quick Step team, he is perhaps one of the most supportive foreign riders between Antwerp and Leuven. He admits: “I have a few fans in Belgium. I know they would support Watt and the whole Belgian team, but they wouldn’t necessarily disappoint the Frenchman to win, I think. I hope, anyway.” There is only one way to check this: cross the line first in Leuven.

Robin Waterrain Journalist RMC Sport