This is Julian Alaphilippe Words/images by James Startt with images

[ This interview took place before the 2018 Tour de France ] In his five seasons as a professional cyclist, 26-year-old Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe has earned a reputation as one of cycling’s great actors. A bike race for him is like being on center stage, and whether it’s his aggressive attacking style or brilliant descending skills he’s always exciting to watch. One thing he has learned is to focus his energy on key objectives—and the work paid off this spring, when Alaphilippe won the prestigious Flèche Wallonne classic before helping his friend and teammate Bob Jungels win Liège–Bastogne–Liège four days later. Together, the two riders have put together a formidable one-two punch on the mighty Quick-Step Floors team. And they were planning on continuing their winning partnership at this year’s Tour de France.

Julian, first of all, congratulations! After twice finishing second, you finally managed to win the Flèche Wallonne, one of the big Ardennes classics. That must have been a tremendous satisfaction? Oh yeah. For me my victory at Flèche represented the fruit of years of labor. I am a rider that needs to win and I’ve been close there several times. It was just a huge satisfaction. And I hope it’s just the first of several more classics victories to come!

In only your second year as a pro, you finished second in both Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège…and then second again in Flèche the next year, not to mention second at the Tour of Lombardy and third in Milan-San Remo in 2017. But you started to be criticized for being a second-place rider, despite the fact that you were winning races like the Tour of California or stages in Paris–Nice and Tour of the Basque Country. Was it hard or frustrating to deal with such criticism so early in your career? No, I never really dwelled on what people said or thought of me. The problem is that I got really big results already in my second year as a professional by finishing second in a cycling monument. So suddenly, in the eyes of some, I should then win it the next year. I could tell in the questions by journalists or fans. But I never focused on that. And, as I often said, in cycling, you don’t win a monument overnight. In cycling, the disappointments are important too. I came really close to winning a great classic several times, but I think each disappointment served its purpose. They just made me hungrier. The rage to win just built up. And today it is paying off. And I would prefer winning a race like the Flèche after finishing second twice, rather than winning right away and not doing much after. The first two times, I was beaten by Alejandro Valverde. To have finally won this year is not due to luck, but rather all the work I have done and that my team has done to succeed in a race like that.

Julian, on following your social-media feed, I have the impression that you have spent a lot of time in training camps this year. Yeah, for sure. I was talking with my buddy Bob Jungels, because we have really spent a lot of time together this year and, yeah, I have really done a lot of training camps. I just feel like I’ve made a big jump this year, firstly in my results, but also in my level of investment in my preparation. I did my first Tour de France two years ago and I didn’t recon any stages. This year, I have ridden all of the stages in the Alps and the Pyrénées as well as the time trial. So, yeah, this year has been different. I feel like I have made a big jump physically and psychologically. I think it shows in the way that I race and the results I’ve gotten.

I turned professional in 2014 and each year I have had good results, but I have also tried to learn from both the good and the bad situations. It is important to learn from your experiences. Since turning pro I have matured physically and gained strength, but I’ve also matured in the way I race and train. I’ve become more focused.

You’ve quickly become one of the most popular riders with your uncalculated, attacking style. As you have become more focused and concentrated, has it become difficult to maintain that playful spirit we have come to love in your racing? Ah, no! I still need to have fun! Deep inside me, I need to have fun when I race. I need the racing to be hard and I need for there to be a lot of movement in the racing. Perhaps I just make fewer errors. But I certainly don’t want to get into a system of racing like a robot, where everything is calculated. I get bored too easily for that! No, that sense of fun hasn’t changed!

Regarding your teammate Bob Jungels, he turned pro one year before you, and you seem to be close both on and off the bike. When you helped him at Liège, you seemed only too happy to see him win. Absolutely. Bob isn’t just my teammate, we’re really good friends. And we were both really focused on the Ardennes this year. I knew what I had to do and he knew what he had to do. We were hyper-motivated and we really peaked for those races. The result was a formidable weekend for both of us. He was super-happy to see me win Flèche, and I’ll never forget the satisfaction of seeing him attack solo in Liège. Even after we both retire I don’t think we will ever forget what we did that weekend. The pride, the emotions just go beyond sport.

Although you’ve earned the reputation of being a great puncheur, you’ve had plenty of promising results in stage races too, winning the 2016 Tour of California and winning a stage and wearing the yellow jersey for several days at Paris-Nice in 2017 and the Basque Country this year. It seems that you have plenty of potential in those races as well…. Yeah, I think in one-week races for sure I can do something. That said, I have to say that I have not focused on them at all so far, because I was really focused on races like the Ardennes classics. But I know that I have potential in such races and I think with time I will be able to progress even more. I just turned 26, so I am still progressing physically. And I think already next year I will be changing my calendar around and starting to discover new races. In terms of the overall classification in the grand tours, I am not thinking about that at all for the moment. But one-week stage races, yes.

But this year’s Tour de France is obviously a big goal if you have spent so much time doing recon. What kind of goals do you have? Quite honestly, we are going into the Tour with plenty of goals, be it helping our sprinter Fernando Gaviria in the sprints, or Bob or myself, there are plenty of opportunities. We may not be totally focused on the overall standings but there will be plenty of opportunities. Quick-Step Floors is a team that likes to win, so we will try to do just that, to win as much as possible. Day in and day out, we will be looking for opportunities to do something in the race and have some fun. First we are focused on the first 10 days because a lot can happen already in those stages. And then we will see where we are at when we hit the mountains. We can’t wait to be there!

You come from a family of musicians and you love playing drums. With all of the time you have spent at training camps and races this year, do you still have time to practice and play your drums? Oh, from time to time. I still play when I can and it is a great way to relax and decompress. But it is true that with all of the traveling I have done this year I have had less time to play drums. I wish I could play more but at the same time it has been really satisfying to be so focused on cycling and to be getting the results. It has just been a lot of fun! Pm

Follow Julian on Instagram: @alafpolak

From issue 78, out now. Purchase here