Alaphilippe and Voeckler explain how it all went right for the French team
France executed a carefully laid plan that saw Alaphilippe win a second consecutive world title, although that last part was improvised...
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Julian Alaphilippe successfully defended his world title at the end of a gruelling 268.3 km race from Antwerp to Leuven. The reigning world champion went solo on the St Antoniusberg climb 17.4 km from the finish, but his French team first put their aggressive plan into action over 150 km earlier.
“I gave everything, but I also have to look at the team,” Alaphilippe said after the finish. “Valentin Madouas and [Florian] Sénéchal guided me excellently in the final. It was very difficult but in the end a real dream. The legs were good, I worked hard towards this. This was not planned. I have no words for this, I’m just happy.”
It’s a year since Alaphilippe won the 2020 World Championship road race in Imola, taking the title in similar solo fashion. He’s worn the rainbow jersey to four big victories since then, the last on stage 1 of the Tour de France where he also crossed the line alone after a late all-out attack.
“I know what it’s like to ride in this jersey so that was definitely an extra motivation for me today,” Alaphilippe said. “It was terrible to have to go 18km from the finish, but I knew what I had to do and just kept on giving everything.”
The 29-year-old became a father just before the Tour de France, and the thought of his son Nino spurred him on during the final exhausting circuit in Leuven. He also drew motivation of a different kind from the Belgian fans.
“I thought of my little one on the final,” Alaphilippe said. “There were many supporters for Belgium and they asked me to slow down. They weren’t sympathetic words but it gave me more motivation.”
It seemed like the French team, directed by former pro Thomas Voeckler, executed a perfect race plan, going on the offensive from a long way out while others opted for a defensive strategy. However, a moment during Alaphilippe’s post-race interview indicated that his final attack wasn’t in the script.
As Voeckler interrupted the interview to congratulate his man, the freshly-crowned world champion exclaimed, “We didn’t stick to the plan but it worked anyway.”
Julian Alaphilippe à Thomas Voeckler: “On n’a pas trop respecté le plan mais ça a marché quand même”. #Flanders2021 pic.twitter.com/RHYI0RgO9p— Le Gruppetto (@LeGruppetto) September 26, 2021
Thomas Voeckler was France’s biggest cheerleader at the race, seen encouraging his riders from the team car and later from the top of the Moskesstraat, just 10 km before Alaphilippe’s first big move. After masterminding Alaphilippe’s second consecutive World Championship victory, the veteran cyclist joked that his years helming the national time might be numbered.
“I am 42 years old, I told my president that I was going to stop because the guys are going to kill me,” Voeckler said. “I want to live a little longer. Julian raced the opposite of what I told him, he scared me the idiot. Arnaud Démare dislocated my shoulder.”
Voeckler spoke more seriously about the race to French media later on Sunday afternoon, starting by praising the efforts of the whole team.
“The state of mind of the group, the behaviour of each one…It’s indescribable!”
He went on to explain their strategy for the race.
“The instructions were to start the race before everyone expected it, so we were a little bit crazy,” Voeckler explained. “It happened how we thought it was going to happen, with a race of attacks to keep it from getting too crowded on the circuit at the end of the race. We wanted to start the attacks before everyone else. And to be honest, this attacking race, we meant to start it even earlier but Rémi Cavagna punctured. We always wanted to be one step ahead, with Benoît Cosnefroy or Arnaud Démare, to have a fast rider in front and create danger. And we wanted to keep Julian and ‘Sénéch’ [Florian Sénéchal] for the end.”
The French national coach also confirmed that Alaphilippe’s winning move wasn’t in the plan.
“What was not planned, however, was for him to do 17 km solo!” Voeckler said. “Julian asked me if he should lead out the sprint for Florian Sénéchal but I told him no, and that ‘Sénéch’ would manage. The last time I spoke to Julian, I told him to follow the attacks and counter. Then I told him to finish on instinct. But in the end, he didn’t follow this instruction, he attacked himself.”
France’s biggest rival for the title was the Belgium team, who were expected to dominate on home roads with Wout van Aert as their figurehead. They raced as you would expect – the rainbow jersey was theirs to lose. But while the Belgians raced defensively for the most part, France took completely the opposite approach, and perhaps most importantly, they didn’t give too much attention to the home favourites.
“Belgium was an adversary like the others and the biggest mistake we could have made would have been to mount an anti-Van Aert or anti-Belgium plan,” Voeckler explained. “And there are undoubtedly many who did. And I didn’t want that, it was out of the question!”