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The two-time world champion and former “patron of the puncheurs” put De Ronde at the center of his ambitions with Soudal Quick-Step for 2023.
After skipping the race last year and being wedged into playing wingman the year before that, can Alaphilippe return to the front of the monument he animated in 2020?
Victim of a true “rainbow curse” in 2022, Alaphilippe is out of the striped bands and more motivated than ever heading into 2023.
“What I experienced last year gives me even more rage. I don’t give up, I’m not like that. You have to have the sacred fire to stay at the highest level, and I always have the sacred fire,” Alaphilippe told l’Equipe.
“Not being at my level for several months gives me even more motivation. I ride my bike to do it fully, in my own way, but last year, I was not able to do it. I can’t wait to find my best feelings and my way of racing.”
A monumental distance between 2020 and 2023
It feels like a lot happened since Alaphilippe tore up the post-pandemic 2020 season.
The French ace bounded out of COVID lockdown and wore yellow at the Tour de France, scored his first world title, and came within a moto’s width of contesting the win of Tour of Flanders.
The rainbow jersey’s somersaulting crash behind Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel was the shot of the 2020 season and captured the one thing that seemed capable of curtailing Alaphilippe’s sensational late-summer.
- Alaphilippe on 2022: ‘It was the hardest season of my career’
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Alaphilippe was hailed one of the “three tenors” alongside Van Aert and Van der Poel. He was the center of Quick-Step, center of the headlines, and good to become king of France.
Flash forward some two-and-a-half years to the Soudal Quick-Step-era Alaphilippe.
After a long time away from the front end of the Flandrien races, the former world champion seems somehow divorced from the present playbook for Belgium’s bergs and beer-sodden streets.
Van Aert and Jumbo-Visma look ready to steamroller the spring. Van der Poel has a potential Tour of Flanders hat trick to fight for. Ineos Grenadiers and Bahrain Victorious are swinging for the fences. And Tadej Pogačar? He’s intent on ruining everyone’s chances.
Alaphilippe is itching to join the party after a season lost to COVID cases and catastrophic crashes and nagged by needling from his boss Patrick Lefevere.
“I’m incredibly motivated for this year after what was a very difficult 2022,” he said.
“First and foremost, I hope to have a strong start to the season. I have a nice calendar and I hope to be up there in every race, help the team and get some wins. My first major target will be the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It’s a race that I love and I hope to do good there.”
Alaphilippe starts his season at next week’s Challenge Mallorca before racing through the French and Italian classics. Trips to Strade Bianche and Milan-Sanremo form subplots in Alaphilippe’s Flandrien quest as he returns to two races he won in his pre-pandemic heyday.
‘Sometimes you have to take risks, otherwise it becomes boring’
Alaphilippe’s decision to focus on Flanders rather than the Ardennes races that delivered him two podium finishes at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and three victories atop the Mur of Flèche Wallonne doesn’t mean he’s a different racer altogether.
“Alapanache” still races to thrill.
“Sometimes you have to take risks in a career, otherwise it can quickly become boring,” he told l’Equipe.
“I have the impression that the Flandrien race suit me almost more than the Ardennes,” Alphilippe continued. “In the way of racing at least – you always have to be well-positioned, you never know where and when there will be the decisive attack.”
Alaphilippe slumped from 12 victories in both 2018 and 2019 to just two in his “rainbow curse” calendar of 2022.
“He has a champion’s salary but he must confirm to me that he is still one,” Lefevere recently said amid reports of the Quick-Step chief offering his former team talisman an early exit from a contract running through 2024.
But now at 30 years old and tilting past the supposed late-20s pro cyclist peak, Alaphilippe doesn’t need Lefevere’s ire to inspire him in 2023.
The question will be, how much has the world moved forward since “that” Flanders photograph and Alaphilippe’s “three tenor” prime.