EPERNAY, France (AP) — He was sweating, baked by the sun, and burning through his energy reserves. But, under the intense pressure of being pursued by the chasing pack of riders at the Tour de France, Julian Alaphilippe also stayed as cool as a chilled glass of Champagne.
The French rider’s sparkling and poised Stage 3 ride on Monday into Epernay, the Champagne town that exports bubbly worldwide, delivered a first victory for France at this Tour and the country’s first yellow jersey since 2014 when Tony Gallopin held the race lead for one day.
The manner of Alaphilippe’s win — surprising other pretenders for the stage victory with a devastating burst of speed on a sharp climb and then gritting his teeth as he rode solo to the finish — oozed what the French call “panache,” or pure class.
He’d long targeted the stage, with its final section of sharp hills among the Champagne vineyards, as suiting his explosive strengths, and executed his plan to perfection.
Cheered on by thick roadside crowds, Alaphilippe delivered the decisive blow on the Cote de Mutigny, the steepest of four notable hill climbs heading toward Epernay.
“I did exactly what I’d planned to do,” he said. “When it works, you have to savor it.”
Jumping out of the saddle to hammer on his pedals up the final part of the 12% incline, Alaphilippe caught other riders cold.
“A very strong attack. I was surprised,” said Peter Sagan, the equally explosive Slovak who’d also been eyeing the stage to add to his collection of 11 career stage victories at the Tour.
But as the pack then reacted and laid chase, eating into his meager lead of around half a minute, victory for Alaphilippe was by no means guaranteed.
Tongue lolling in the heat, the leader of the Deceuninck-Quick Step team kept his pursuers at bay for 16 long and lonely kilometers (10 miles), speeding alone up Epernay’s cobbled Champagne Avenue heaving with sun-baked fans to the lung-busting uphill finish.
By the time he sped past a statue of Dom Perignon, a monk who lent his name to James Bond’s favorite brand of Champagne, it became clear Alaphilippe wouldn’t be caught.
“Winning the stage in this manner is the most beautiful way to start this Tour,” Alaphilippe said. “This opportunity offered itself up and I had to seize it.”
He was overcome with emotion, barely able to speak through tears, at the prospect of slipping into the canary-yellow leader’s jersey for the first time in his career. He took the race lead from Mike Teunissen, a Dutch sprinter who won it on Stage 1 and held it on Stage 2 but who wilted on Epernay’s vineyard-covered hills.
It was Alaphilippe’s first stage victory at this Tour and third in his career. He also won two stages on the Tour last year.
“I so dreamed of this scenario and I thought of my family in front of the TV,” he said. “Incredible.”
Although relatively flat for much of the way, the furious hilly finale of the 215-kilometer (134-mile) trek from the Belgian town of Binche offered more inklings about the fitness of main contenders for the overall victory in Paris on July 28.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas couldn’t quite stay with his Ineos teammate Egan Bernal up the final incline. Bernal pipped Thomas by five seconds, strengthening suspicions that the lithe Colombian climber could he hard to contain in the Tour’s mountains, with the first climbing stage fast approaching in Stage 6 on Thursday.
French climber Thibaut Pinot, a podium finisher in 2014, also sped in with Bernal’s small group ahead of Thomas and other title contenders.
“Short, steep climbs aren’t necessarily what I love,” Thomas’ team quoted him as saying. “I wasn’t dancing up the climbs but I felt OK. I didn’t want to do more than had to be done.”