Julian Alaphilippe dispelled any lingering gloom hanging over the Grand Depart of the 2020 Tour de France by speeding to victory and the race leader’s yellow jersey in the 186 kilometre second stage to the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice.
The hugely popular French rider, who led the Tour for 14 days in 2019, slumped on the ground in tears and dedicated victory to his father, who died in June, after narrowly outsprinting Marc Hirschi of Switzerland and Britain’s resurgent Adam Yates.
“It’s always special to win on the Tour, but this is a special year,” Alaphilippe said. “It’s been a really difficult year for me. I just want to dedicate this victory to my dad.”
A mountainous stage through the Alpes-Maritimes burst into life on the short final climb, the Col des Quatre Chemins, a minnow compared to the giant ascents of the Colmiane and Turini tackled earlier in the day, but with gradients ideally suited to Alaphilippe’s trademark punchy accelerations.
When the Frenchman attacked on the steepest sections, only the little-known Hirschi and a surprisingly rapid Yates could follow. Yates led over the top and the trio then worked together to distance the pursuing peloton as they sped back down the corniche roads to the Nice seafront.
“I’d asked the team to make it hard in the finale and that’s what we did,” the French rider said. “There were not many riders left on the last climb.”
But neither Hirschi nor Yates had an adequate answer to Alaphilippe’s finishing burst and, with the peloton hot on their heels and closing fast, the 28-year-old opened up his sprint and powered across the line and into the Tour leader’s maillot jaune.
“The others tried to play with my nerves a little bit,” Alaphilippe said, “but in the end Yates worked well. There was a strong headwind, but we couldn’t miss our chance. Winning made me feel good, I’ve missed it.”
Yates, who suffered a bout of sickness before the Tour started, had, like Alaphilippe, spoken only of seeking stage wins, but such was his climbing speed in pursuit of Alaphilippe that his team’s expectations may now be heightened. After such a performance, both riders will surely be reassessing their goals.
“I came across to Alaphilippe and Hirschi and then we started working on the descent,” Yates, now second overall, said. “In the end I was never going to win the sprint , those too were both faster than me , but to come third on stage two, I’m pretty happy with that. Maybe if there had been another climb, but in a sprint on this kind of finish, I was always going to end up second or third. All in all, it was a good day.”
The peloton left the start line in Nice with the majority of riders swathed in bandages. There were three non‑starters: Philippe Gilbert, of Belgium, his teammate and 2018 stage winner, John Degenkolb, and Rafael Valls, of Mikel Landa’s Bahrain McLaren team, all of whom were victims of crashes during Saturday’s chaotic first stage.
Others, meanwhile, including Thibaut Pinot of France, Pavel Sivakov, of the Ineos Grenadiers, and Nairo Quintana, of Colombia, were the pedalling wounded, as they did their best to shrug off the pain caused by their crashes the previous day. “It hurts all over,” Pinot said before the start.
The day’s seven-man breakaway, which included perennial green jersey wearer, Peter Sagan, established itself well before the first main climb of the Col de la Colmiane, but with the peloton only allowing them a short leash it was inevitable that the group would be reeled in.
Just as they had in Saturday’s chaotic conditions, the Jumbo-Visma team of Primoz Roglic assumed control and led the main field up the next ascent, first category Col de Turini, with the Ineos Grenadiers of defending Tour champion, Egan Bernal, seemingly happy to take a back seat. The pace was high enough though to shed overnight race leader and stage one winner, Alexander Kristoff, with 90km still to race.
But the stage truly came to life on the Col des Quatre Chemins, where Alaphilippe put in his decisive attack. That sudden explosion of speed provoked a degree of panic that saw Roglic’s teammate Tom Dumoulin take an unexpected tumble and Bernal’s team suddenly move to the front of the peloton.
A mass pursuit, on the descent back to Nice seafront, initiated by Bernal’s team and followed by most of the leading favourites, could not prevent the French rider taking the stage win and the coveted yellow jersey. Any pretence then, after last year’s swashbuckling performance, that Alaphilippe would settle merely for stage wins, rather than targeting overall victory, has already evaporated.
“I gave everything,” Alaphilippe said of his typically dramatic stage win. “I had nothing to lose. It’s something special to be in yellow in the Tour, so we will defend it.”