Some things should be held sacred. Trees that are hundreds of years old, for example. Or the innocence of youth. Maybe even that first sip of coffee in the morning. I’d like to add something else to that list: Julian Alaphilippe.
The Frenchman is, from personal experience and according to the sworn testimony of others who’ve interacted with him, a thoroughly decent man. Very personable, unassuming despite his stature in the sport of cycling, and with just the right amount of cheeky to perfectly tread the line between boring bike racer and becoming a public personality that gets memed to death. He’s real.
So, when Patrick Lefevere offers Alaphilippe up as the latest “star rider I’m paying too much to be winning so little” in his office politics game of checkers, I want to say no, Patrick. NO. Enough. Put it DOWN.
First, let’s recap what cycling’s shrewdest accountant and world expert in post-rationalised buyer’s remorse has said.
“You have to be honest: when Julian excelled in recent years, there was no Van der Poel, Pogačar, Van Aert…,” Lefevere told RMC’s Grand Plateau podcast. [Fact check: Not really true or fair, seeing as Van der Poel and Van Aert were in the mix in 2020 and 2021 at Classics where Alaphilippe played a key role; Alaphilippe also shared a podium with Pogačar at Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Van Aert and Pogačar were beaten by Alaphilippe at 2020 Worlds; all three were in 2021. But do go on, Patrick … ]
“I learned a beautiful expression in French: ‘Dans la vie, tout le monde doit justifier son salaire’ . In life, everyone has to justify their salary. Well, he will have received his salary for three years at the end of 2024.
“Fortunately he has become world champion twice. In addition, he won the opening stage of the Tour in 2021 and wore the yellow [jersey]. I understand that French teams are satisfied with that, but I am not. I love Julian just like everyone else. How can you not love him? But I also have to be realistic: he takes a big bite out of my budget. I want to see results.
“I always say there are three trimesters, just like at school. Suppose he wins two or three stages in the Tour and wears the yellow jersey ten times, it is already a different story. And if he becomes world champion and wins Il Lombardia, it will be another story. We look quarter by quarter. I am not talking about 2024 yet.”
Of course, there is logic to Lefevere’s reasoning. He has a finite budget and effectively needs enough wins to keep the lights on. It is also not his style to wave the question off with a “we’ll see, many decisions have to be made”. You can’t be angry with a Belgian team boss for speaking bluntly – it’s just what they do. Unfortunately, I also can’t help being triggered into oblivion by Lefevere saying Alaphilippe hasn’t earned his current contract.
It’s straight out of the Lefevere playbook, to speak so openly in the press about such things. In fact, it’s something of a time-honoured tradition; this is at least the fourth time since last August that Lefevere has said Alaphilippe is underperforming for his salary. And this is probably not something a cycling journalist should be complaining about, as access is hard to come by these days and Lefevere is always (if you put your brave-boy pants on that morning) approachable and good for a quote. By now you’d assume he enjoys the ripostes to his outspoken remarks almost as much as he enjoys making them.
Maybe it’s pre-emptive, a conscious uncoupling. It’s pure speculation, but a conspiracy theorist’s pinboard would show that Soudal Quick-Step are transforming into a Remco Evenepoel-led Grand Tour outfit; Peter Sagan is also leaving TotalEnergies soon, which opens up a sizable chunk of budget at a rich French team that could do with a big French star on its books. You’d imagine the other French teams would also jump at the chance to sign their country’s biggest star. Imagine how many Cofidises and Arkéa-Samsics you could sell with Alaphilippe in one of their jerseys?
Lefevere likely senses this, as he did with Sam Bennett’s protracted departure – and wasn’t that a shitshow – but even though a convenient parting of ways may be unfolding he can’t help his biological urge, the knee-jerk instinct, to remove any decorum from the last few steps of the dance. He has form in this regard: with Bennett, with Cav (more than twice!), and he’s been publicly scathing of the Classics team all season, which is pretty ominous for their future contract negotiations.
Maybe Alaphilippe doesn’t mind having his boss lay the groundwork of his exit and getting people used to the idea of the French rider wearing another squad’s strip. He might even find some humour in it – or at least be preoccupied with making sure there’s enough room in his bank account for the French-team Euros that are soon going to be flooding it that Lefevere’s comments merely sound like a man yelling at the sky somewhere far enough away that he can’t actually hurt you.
Again, the Alaphilippe to TotalEnergies theory is complete conjecture, but it does make a lot of sense. One snag that will have to be sorted if that move is to work out, though, is whether Mathieu Burgaudeau, a known Alaphilippe doppelgänger, will have to shave off his facial hair. Or is having M-Burg as an Alaphilippe lookalike a way of maximising marketing exposure, having a duplicate of the two-time world champion on the books to farm out for photoshoots and the like? Maybe there’s also some tactical sleight-of-hand to be played? Or maybe Lefevere will turn around and hire Burgaudeau out of spite, a final kick in the teeth on Alaphilippe’s way out the door.
Anyway, it’s my fault for eating out of Lefevere’s bin and expecting to get any nourishment. No-one can take away his success, but why’s he got to be so mean?
To extend the Taylor Swift analogy further, the recent breakdown of her relationship with Joe Alwyn prompted excitement amongst ‘Swifties’ that a T-Swizzle break-up album could be right around the corner. But at what cost? Is Taylor happy? Is this truly how she wants to live her life?
The same can be said for Lefevere, who at 68 probably doesn’t know any other way to be. But please, just leave Julian Alaphilippe alone.
You also might as well set a reminder in your calendars for this time of year in 2025, where Evenepoel is coming off the back of a difficult 2024 campaign, and Lefevere starts questioning how shrewd is his (at the time of writing but the situation is always fluid) current golden boy/goose. If it’s happening to Alaphilippe, no Soudal Quick-Step rider is truly safe from Lefevere’s critical gaze.