“If not me, then him.”
Just before La Redoute, Julian Alaphilippe rode up beside Jakob Fuglsang and said, “I hope you win today.” Each was the other’s greatest rival. All spring, they had gone toe-to-toe in the finales of the hilly classics. At Flèche Wallone and the Strade Bianche, Alaphilippe had beaten Fuglsang into second. At Amstel Gold, they had raced each other out of contention.
Cycling is not boxing though. Bike racers never square up to their competitors. Instead, they swap turns in the wind. As they pass, they brush elbows and share words of encouragement. One in front, then the other, their shoes flash repeatedly side-by-side.
They approach blind, wet corners at 80 km/hr and depend on each other to follow the right line. On the climbs, they can tell how hard the others have it by the quickness of their breath.
They are collaborators, entirely reliant on each other, though they know that each one of them will ultimately do whatever he has to do to ensure that his own team wins, until each individual moment of truth, when one-by-one all but one has to fall back.
Those moments of truth come sooner or later. For Alaphilippe, it came sooner than expected at Liége-Bastogne-Liége. For a rider of Fuglslang’s calibre, it was sooner or later bound to not come at all.
Perhaps, his chance to win came so late because he is so dependable. He has been among the very strongest riders all spring. Two hundred and forty kilometres into Liége-Bastogne-Liége, the hardest classic of them all, he could finally just ride the rest off his wheel.
For once, cycling would reward the most honourable rider.
So, Alaphilippe and the rest thought, ‘If not me, then him’.