ÉPERNAY, France — He was sweating, baked by the sun, and burning through his energy reserves. But, under the intense pressure of being pursued by the 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 Épernay, 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.
Alaphilippe attacked on the stage’s second-to-last climb with a devastating burst of speed on a sharp ascent and then grit his teeth on a breakaway to the finish. Cheered on by thick roadside crowds, Alaphilippe delivered the decisive blow on the Côte de Mutigny, the steepest of four notable hill climbs heading toward Épernay.
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.
“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 percent 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.
The pack laid chase, eating into Alaphilippe’s meager lead of around half a minute, but the leader of the Deceuninck-Quick Step team kept his pursuers at bay for 16 long and lonely kilometers (10 miles), finishing the stage 26 seconds ahead of the field. He’ll enter Tuesday’s stage with a 20-second overall lead.
“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 as the Tour crossed into France from Belgium, its starting point. Mike Teunissen, a Dutch sprinter, had won the yellow jersey on Stage 1 and held it on Stage 2 but wilted on Épernay’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.”