The Frenchman leads the six-day race after powering to his first World Tour victory of the season on the opening stage.
Last year, Julian Alaphilippe was left disappointed as he rolled to the finish of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco opening stage, after an untimely puncture outside the final three kilometers stopped his brave attack and ruined any chance of fighting for the win. Twelve months later, Julian emerged as the strongest rider on the first day of the World Tour race, after surging clear on the grueling Elkano climb together with Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), scorching the fast descent to Zarautz and holding off the Slovenian in a two-man sprint.
Before it came down to crunch time, the 162.1km-long stage had been animated by four riders, who were joined by two others some sixty kilometers from the finish. Despite the new forces, they couldn't stretch out their advantage to more than two minutes and got caught ahead of the fifth and final classified ascent of the day, a real bruiser with 20% maximum gradients, that topped with less than seven kilometers to go.
A natural selection took place halfway through the climb, before Julian Alaphilippe got out of the saddle and launched a stinging attack which dropped all bar one rider. Together with Roglic, the 25-year-old Quick-Step Floors rider, a stage victor in February at the inaugural Colombia Oro y Paz race, put in some strong turns, increasing the gap over the first chasing group, which contained also the young Enric Mas, who permanently kept an eye on the others.
In Zarautz, a small town which hosted a Vuelta al Pais Vasco stage finish for the first time, Julian hit out in the sprint with 200 meters to go and outkicked Roglic for a victory that France had been waiting in this race since 2006. For Quick-Step Floors, this was the 22nd victory of the season, and came just 24 hours after a monumental triumph at the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
"I am very happy, especially as I got sick after Milano-Sanremo and had to rest before returning to training. I was very motivated after this small setback, so I worked hard to be back at my best. The plan was to take a stage here and even though we did a recon of the final climb yesterday and on paper it suited me, I didn't know how my legs would react following that break. I was focused, smart and strong, I worked well together with Roglic, who too was very strong, and in the end I bided my time before powering to this nice win. A big thanks to my team for protecting me today and to the amazing crowds, who cheered for us before the start and at the finish."
First French rider since 1999 to don the leader's jersey at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Julian Alaphilippe – who holds also the points jersey – surprised many at the start of the stage, where he sported a new musketeer-like look, which made fans and riders question him: "Everyone in the peloton asked me what was with the moustache. After my teammates the other day, now the other riders came to me and asked if there was any reason behind this new look. To be frank, there wasn't any and I wasn't even focused on it, but now that I won, I'll keep it."
Enric Mas capped off Quick-Step Floors' beautiful day by finishing in fourth place and grabbing the best young rider jersey. The 23-year-old Spaniard, who at his Pais Vasco debut last season finished in 14th place overall, was content with this result, which helped Quick-Step Floors top the team standings.
"The stage wasn't easy and the peloton grew nervous as the last climb was approaching. Everyone knew there will be fireworks there and battled for a good position. I was at all times attentive and at the front, together with Julian, as I felt good throughout the day and knew it was important to be up there with the strong crosswinds. At the end, I came just outside the podium, but the way my legs responded satisfies me. I lead the youth rankings and the confidence is there, so now I'll just take it one day at a time and see what this race brings in the next stages."
Photo credit: ©David Ramos/ Getty Images