What Makes Julian Alaphilippe King of the Mur de Huy?
Julian Alaphilippe showed he was made for the Mur de Huy, as he once again won La Flèche Wallone in style. © Bettini Photo
As this year's Ardennes Classics came to an end, we learnt many things about some of the current most talked about riders in cycling. One of them being that Julian Alaphilippe’s stranglehold over La Flèche Wallone doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. The current world champion wrapped up his third victory at the 2021 edition, and he did so in supreme confidence and style. Such a dominant performance reinforced the fact that in some cases, riders are made for a particular finish and the legendary climb of the Mur de Huy, along with Julian Alaphilippe, is absolutely one of those cases.
Alaphilippe has shown time and time again that hilly terrain is where he is at his most dominant, and such a reputation has led to him becoming arguably the most feared puncheur in the sport. Last year on the Cima Gallisterna at the World Championships, Alaphilippe’s infallibility on short and steep climbs was on full display. His slight build combined with raw power has led to him being capable of explosive attacks which hardly anyone can often follow. On the final ascent of the Gallisterna, Alaphilippe launched a vicious attack which even riders of the stature of Wout van Aert and Marc Hirschi were unable to respond to and he then raced onto the Imola racetrack to wrap up victory and the rainbow jersey. We’d seen it in the past at La Flèche Wallone and Milan-San Remo, and coming into the 2021 season it was very much expected it would continue.
Alaphilippe sprints away from his rivals on the way to victory at the 2019 edition of La Flèche Wallone. © Luc Claessen/Getty Images
In order to win atop the Mur de Huy you need to become a master of timing. Those that in the past have chosen to attack from the base of the horrifically steep climb are rarely able to sustain it to the finish line. The Mur de Huy is only just a little more than a kilometre of effort, but further up the climb the gradient becomes devilish, and at that point early attackers are often reeled in. That was the case at the recent 2021 edition when Primož Roglič chose to attack from lower down the Mur. His powerful acceleration deceptively suggested for a moment that the Slovenian was about to buck the trend I’ve outlined, but Alaphilippe knew he could bide his time before chasing down Roglič. As the riders reached the steeper sections, Alaphilippe launched his move, in the same buccaneering style we’ve come to associate with him. He gradually pulled himself across to Roglič before kicking again to power past him and over the line in first place.
When you look at it on paper, Alaphilippe’s set of results at La Flèche Wallone are remarkable. The World Champion has started the race on five occasions. He finished second on his race debut in 2015, then repeated that the following year in 2016 when he finished second to the previous Mur de Huy monarch, Alejandro Valverde. Following on from there, Alaphilippe’s next three appearances at the race have all resulted in victory. All things considered, 2-2-1-1-1 is flawless form and it shows no sign of wavering either. Alaphilippe missed the 2020 edition which was won by Marc Hirschi. However, the style in which he made light work of a rider of the calibre of Primož Roglič, suggests his dominance here should continue.
The question is though, what makes Alaphilippe the current master of La Fleche Wallone? He is a rider who is perfectly suited to the parcours; light and punchy and able to deliver quick bursts of acceleration. All of that combined would make a rider like Alaphilippe suited to nearly all of the Ardennes Classics as, like La Flèche, they are all littered with hills. However, La Flèche Wallone is very much about the finale and the ascent of the Mur de Huy. As I’ve outlined, timing is everything on a climb like this. If you go too early then the sections where the gradient reaches up to nearly 15% will catch you out, and Alaphilippe knows this. The Frenchman’s teammates at Deceuninck-Quick Step simply have to control the tempo and speed of the main field on the approach to the Mur de Huy, therefore endeavouring to position their leader well at the base of the climb. Then from there Julian Alaphilippe can let his final uphill sprint do the damage. He is an astute athlete and finishing second to Alejandro Valverde in a past edition of the race will have taught him all the tricks and know-how of how to master the finish.
Riders climb the Mur de Huy in the 2015 edition of La Flèche Wallone. © Graham Watson
Coming into this year’s edition, Julian Alaphilippe hadn’t displayed the same form and confidence we’ve come to expect from him. Since winning the rainbow jersey in Imola, at times he’s appeared somewhat hesitant when it comes to launching the race winning attacks we know he’s so devastatingly capable of. Nevertheless, he has consistently been in the conversation around the favourites at every major one day race he’s participated in since winning the World Championships. Taking victory at La Flèche this year was actually his one and only one-day win in 2021, so it had been a long time coming. The rainbow jersey of the World Champion inevitably brings pressure to the wearer, but it also attracts more media coverage. Finishing atop the podium at a race where he has such impeccable form to date proved that Alaphilippe was back to his best.
“I just wanted to show people that I was strong in the head. Since the start of the season I haven’t won a lot. That did not stop me having fun, but it was important for me to raise my arms again,” he said. “I put some pressure on myself. Not pressure, but I wanted to win again. It does me an enormous amount of good to win, especially in the jersey. I’m really happy.”
Julian Alaphilippe caught Primož Roglič, before passing him and across the finish line in first place. © Getty Images Sport
After finishing in second place again at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Alaphilippe can still take heart from what was a successful campaign in the Ardennes for him. He had admitted that LBL had been a big target for him this season, but after being beaten on the line by Tadej Pogačar he must wait until 2022 for a shot at winning La Doyenne.
A rider as fiery and beguiling as Julian Alaphilippe will surely soon run out of goals to meet at one day races. How long before he targets the big one in his home country in July? We’ve seen his team have the strength in depth to dominate at one-day races, and with Remo Evenepoel expected to race the Giro d’Italia as a favourite, how long before Alaphilippe is considered a serious contender at the Tour de France? We’ve seen him hold the Maillot Jaune so admirably in past years before losing out in the end, but with the right development and tweaking of his race programme, it’s possible to consider him as an all-out challenger to some of the other GC favourites lining up at the Tour de France.
We know he is an explosive puncheur, but with the right refinement in key areas it’s possible to imagine him being a stronger climber capable of longer and more sustained efforts in the mountains, therefore matching the likes of Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar. Alaphilippe has proven already that he can time-trial, and with other big name French riders struggling to find form in recent years, could Alaphilippe one day give the French public the one thing they crave, a first Tour de France winner since the great Bernard Hinault in 1985? I think he probably can.
Alaphilippe celebrates victory at La Flèche Wallone 2021. © Luc Claessen/Getty Images