It never hurts to have a bit of local knowledge. When Julian Alaphilippe performed his lone reconnaissance of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad finale on Thursday afternoon, he heeded the advice of his Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates to pause atop the Muur van Geraardsbergen to sample the area’s delicacy, the mattentaart. “It gave me a little taste of the atmosphere of the Classics,” Alaphilippe told reporters via video call on Friday afternoon.
A little taste is all Alaphilippe has ever had of the cobbled Classics to this point, but the painfully abrupt ending to his Tour of Flanders debut last October has done nothing to diminish the world champion’s appetite for the narrow roads of the Flemish Ardennes.
“I’d always loved the Tour of Flanders, even if I’d never participated in it, because I’d heard all about the atmosphere from my teammates,” Alaphilippe said. “Last year, I was able to impose myself on the race up until the crash, and even despite that, I was super happy to discover the Tour of Flanders. And now I’m happy to do a few more Flemish Classics before the Ardennes.”
Indeed, Alaphilippe’s enthusiasm for Flanders is now such that he bought an apartment in Ronse last autumn, though he was keen to point out that he remains a resident of Andorra. “I haven’t moved there, I’ve just taken a small apartment to spend a few days there when I’m in between Classics,” he said.
Until he crashed out of the winning move at last year’s Tour of Flanders, Alaphilippe was the only rider to match Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix), and in their absence on Saturday, he is viewed by many as the top favourite for Omloop. He disputed the idea, however, and insisted that Deceuninck-QuickStep would, as ever, line out with a range of options at their disposal.
“These races aren’t just about Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel. There are lots of rivals from strong teams who will be very hard to beat,” said Alaphilippe. “I hope I have an important role and I hope I can help the team to get the best possible result, but I don’t feel that I’m the number one favourite.
“We’ve got a very strong and balanced team. We don’t have many riders to work in the early kilometres. Apart from Tim [Declercq], the team is only made up of riders who can be active in the finale, and then we also have Davide [Ballerini] in the event of a sprint.”
Illness and injury
Alaphilippe began his 2021 campaign with a full-throated display at the Tour de la Provence, where he threw himself onto the offensive on the opening stage, and then performed strongly to place third on Mont Ventoux. It was a performance that augured well for his year in the rainbow bands, but he maintained that it provided few indications for Omloop, not least because he was laid low with a cold in the aftermath of the race.
“They’re two completely different races, you can’t confuse the two. My condition was very good in Provence, but now I’m starting again on the cobbles here,” he said. “After Provence, I also had a bit of a cold for a few days, so I stayed calm from a training point of view. I rode but I needed to rest, too. It’s been better for the last few days. I’m happy to be at the start tomorrow and I’ll see what happens.”
On Saturday, Alaphilippe will race with two layers of handlebar tape to protect the hand he broke in his crash in last year’s Ronde – “It’s not a big thing and it doesn’t stop me from riding, even it’s not 100 per cent” – and with any gaps in his local knowledge covered by the wealth of experience in his Deceuninck-QuickStep team. The wisdom imparted by men like 2019 Omloop winner Zdenek Štybar and Yves Lampaert extends far beyond the merits of the puff pastries of East Flanders.
Alaphilippe, who has watched videos of old editions of the Tour of Flanders in preparation for Omloop’s finale over the Muur and Bosberg, has been briefed that the race has a habit of igniting a long, long way from the finish in Ninove.
“I’ve heard that might be a lot of headwind in the finale,” said Alaphilippe. “I’ve spoken about it a lot with Zdenek Štybar, who knows the race and has won it in the past. He said it’s really a special race, it sometimes opens up quite early, a long way from the finish. I think it will be an attacking race and that’s something I like.”