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.”