A year after thrilling his home nation for a fortnight on last year’s Tour de France, a tearful Julian Alaphilippe produced an almost carbon-copy capture of a stage win on Sunday to claim the overall leader’s yellow jersey once again.
On the day’s final climb, Alaphilippe launched a blistering attack to clinch bonus seconds at the summit before a white-knuckle descent to the finish line in Nice also gave him bonus time.
Alaphilippe, described by former winner Geraint Thomas during last year’s rampage as the “darling of France”, leads Britain’s Adam Yates, who accompanied him in his wild dash from distance, by just four seconds.
The main overall contenders are 17 seconds adrift.
“I just wanted to dedicate this victory to my dad. It was important to me,” said a tearful Alaphilippe whose father Jo passed away in June.
Former soldier Alaphilippe began punching towards the sky as he turned to see just how close behind him the onrushing peloton was to overtaking his escaping trio on the Promenade des Anglais finish line.
The set-up of the second stage was eerily close to how Alaphilippe stole away from the peloton last year on day three to Epernay and eventually led the Tour for 14 days before wilting on the penultimate stage to finish fifth overall.
No Frenchman has won the Tour de France since 1985.
“I really wanted to try something and I had nothing to lose,” said Deceuninck-Quick Step’s leader.
“It really hurt me, I was digging deep at the end there,” said Alaphilippe.
“It’s a great pride and responsibility and I will defend this honour day by day, I won’t be giving it up tomorrow that’s for sure,” he promised.
Jumbo-Visma may, however, be furious at the circumstances accompanying the win.
Shortly after Alaphilippe’s attack, Team Ineos’ Michal Kwiatkowski backed into Jumbo co-captain Tom Dumoulin and knocked him to the floor.
The former Giro winner dusted himself off as Kwiatkowski apologised profusely, but the team was slow to react.
The Dutch outfit had been leading the head of the peloton all day, but suddenly they slowed down and abandoned their pursuit of Alaphilippe, who had the Swiss Marc Hirschi and Yates for company on their tense 15-minute dash to the line where they never led by more than 30 seconds.
Mitchelton-Scott rider Yates has recently signed for British team Ineos.
He has a track record at the Tour after a fourth-place finish in 2016 when he won the best young rider white jersey.
“In the end I was never going to win the sprint, but to come third on stage two, I’m pretty happy with that,” said Yates.
Defending champion Egan Bernal of Colombia said he felt like the Tour was in full swing.
“I’m happy to be racing like this, that was a real Tour stage and I really enjoyed it,” said the 23-year-old Ineos leader who had a slightly rusty build-up to the race.
The man who started the day in yellow, Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, who won Saturday’s crash-marred opening stage, finished way off the pace as one of the heaviest set men in the peloton had to go over two category one mountains.
He will, however, embark on Monday’s stage three in the green sprint jersey.
“I didn’t want to hurt my chances of winning a sprint later in the tour by pushing too hard in the hills,” he explained.
The climb was doubly difficult for several of the peloton, nursing nasty knocks from stage one.
It looked like French contender Thibaut Pinot would withdraw at one stage before he rallied “hurting all over” to finish with the main pack.
Monday’s stage three heads to Sisteron, a town of 8,000 that British sprinter Mark Cavendish will have fond memories of after a stage win in 2010.
The 198km run into the Haute-Provence region via the Riviera backcountry and the wonderfully named ‘Valley de la Durance’ is tailor-made for a successful escape.