For his father: A poignant Alaphilippe win at Tour de France

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French rider Thibault Pinot, center, sits after falling during the first stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 156 kilometers (97 miles) with start and finish in Nice, southern France, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (Anne-Christine Poujoulat, Pool via AP)

NICE, France (AP) — Racing across the finish line at the Tour de France, Julian Alaphilippe kissed his finger and raised it to the sky, dedicating his win Sunday on Stage 2 to his father who died in June.

“I promised myself that I’d win for him,” the French rider said.

The tribute and the thrilling manner of his victory showed that even amid the coronavirus crisis, the Tour is still a mighty generator of emotions.

Many of its fans are heeding government pleas to watch the action on TV from the safety of their couches. Those still turning out in towns and villages as the race zooms past are being urged to keep their distance, to prevent the virus from contaminating the riders for whom they cheer through face masks.

And yet, despite all this, the opening weekend of the Tour still set hearts racing, with dramatic spills on the rain-slickened opening day followed by Alaphilippe’s poignant win. No one can be sure that the race will negotiate its way through France’s worsening infections to the finish in Paris on Sept. 20. Yet the show, for now at least, is most definitely on — with Alaphilippe back in the race leader’s iconic yellow jersey, once again showing the way.

Having already done more than any other rider to turn the 2019 edition into a thriller, the darling of French cycling fans again showered the Tour with his class and guile in poaching victory in the picture-postcard Mediterranean city of Nice.

A final burst of acceleration timed with precision enabled Alaphilippe to shake two pursuers and hold off the main pack of riders furiously gaining ground on the finishing straight.

Deprived of wins since his fan-beguiling feats last summer left him drained, Alaphilippe is talking down any hope of winning the overall title in Paris. But he intends to cling to the prized jersey for as long as possible and proved last year that once on his shoulders, it’s tough to peel off. He held the race lead for 14 days.

“The yellow jersey has to be respected,” he said. “I will defend it with honor.”

The stage win was his fifth in four Tours. Alaphilippe had identified the 186-kilometer (115.5-mile) Stage 2, looping over mountains to the north of Nice and with hill-climbs before the finish, as particularly suited to his punchy, aggressive style. He and his Deceuninck-Quick Step team executed their plan like clockwork.

With teammate Bob Jungels leading the way on the final climb, up to the Quatre Chemins pass on the outskirts of Nice, Alaphilippe first positioned himself in his slipstream. He then raced off with a sharp acceleration on a right-hand bend, quickly opening a gap. He was chased down by Swiss rider Marc Hirschi and Briton Adam Yates, setting up a three-way fight for the stage victory.

Speeding into central Nice, past huge yachts parked in its harbor and along the stunning seafront overlooking the Mediterranean’s azure waters, they collaborated in a strong headwind to keep the chasing pack at bay.

Alaphilippe adjusted his helmet and tightened his shoes as the trio then played a waiting game to see which of them would be first to place the final winning burst of speed. Alaphilippe outfoxed his pursuers with his acceleration, holding off Hirschi’s late charge. Yates was third.

“I asked my team to make the race hard,” Alaphilippe said. “There weren’t many riders left in the last climb. I gave it all. I had nothing to lose. This is the victory that I was missing. The yellow jersey is the icing on the cake.”

Afterward, slumped by the roadside, he burst into tears. One of his teammates, Dries Devenyns, was awed by the manner of the win.

“I stopped on the side of the road to watch the last 500 meters on a spectator’s smartphone,” he said. “I shouted when he won. He already did two weeks in yellow last year, we have it again, we are going to protect it as much as we can.”

Overall, Alaphilippe has a four-second lead over Yates, with Hirschi in third place three seconds further back ahead of Monday’s hilly Stage 3 from Nice to Sisteron.

The race lost three riders to the spate of crashes on Stage 1. Many rode Sunday with bandages and painful injuries, including a broken rib for Dutch rider Wout Poels and a fracture at the base of the spine for David De La Cruz from Spain.

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