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France gets ready to embrace Amgen Tour winner Julian Alaphilippe

He comes from a country where bicycle racing is only slightly less popular than a glass of good Bordeaux, but Julian Alaphilippe had a sense that it might take a while for news of his good fortune to make the rounds in his native land.

“I don’t know,” Alaphilippe answered, when asked Sunday how his victory that afternoon in the Amgen Tour of California was being received back home, “because it is night in France.”

Chances are decent, however, that more than a few folks from the beaches of Normandy to Nice stayed up late to check the sports wire on the latest news from Sacramento.

The ticker showed that Alaphilippe finished 11th in the eighth and final stage of the Amgen, which was good enough to preserve his first overall championship of any tour.

Not that Alaphilippe didn’t have some friendly help. His teammates from Belgium-based Etixx-Quick-Step shielded him from the crosswinds of the Sacramento River Delta and kept him fresh for the stretch drive down L Street.

They also helped guide him safely around the potholes that marked the winding river road that posed navigation problems Sunday to cyclists the world over. One fellow sped into one and wound up splattered on the shoulder.

Maybe Alaphilippe will go on to become France’s next big thing on two wheels. Even if he doesn’t, his team will be richer by $15,770.08 for his general-classification victory.

At least it will be enough for Alaphilippe to buy a new set of skins. He plays the drums for fun, and there’s no question he was in rhythm for the eight days he was on the road in California.

Alaphilippe, 23, is a native of Saint-Amand-Montrond, a countryside town in the middle of France that retains vestiges of the Roman Empire. The legions of Rome, of course, were known for maintaining a tightly packed peloton as they stormed up the gut of the European continent.

Cycling fans know his hometown as a gorgeous, occasional stage on the sport’s biggest stage, the Tour de France, and as one of the best places in the world for young bike racers to train.

Now in his third year of world-class adult competition, Alaphilippe has turned California into a nice tourist stop for himself.

He finished second in the Amgen Tour last year. Most impressively, he finished first in the “queen stage,” or most difficult of any tour. Last year, Mt. Baldy’s 10,064 feet of ardor won the prize for the California tour’s toughest day, and Alaphilippe was first to scale the peak that outscales all others in the San Gabriel range.

It figured, then, that Alaphilippe would make his move on this year’s California tour once he and the boys took to the hills.

The third stage started in Thousand Oaks, rolled around Lake Casitas and unfolded behind Santa Barbara at an upward angle of 10 percent along Gibraltar Road. Videotape of his conquering of Gibraltar showed one fan who apparently took a wrong turn off East Beach running alongside the racers while carrying a surfboard under his arm. Another donned more traditional garb to do his cheer-leading. He was dressed as the pope.

Inspired on the mountain, Alaphilippe broke free to win the third stage. With the first-place finish, he added a new shirt to his wardrobe. It was yellow, signifying the tour leader.

Alaphilippe didn’t give it back. Along the ups and downs of the Central Coast, past Hearst Castle and Big Sur, and through the corkscrew of the Laguna Seca raceway outside Monterey, he had enough left from the previous day’s climb to actually extend his overall lead to 22 seconds.

He maintained it on the 132.4-mile stretch from Lodi to Lake Tahoe, over the Carson Pass and Kirkwood Summit.

A strong eighth-place finish in Friday’s time trial in Folsom told the wise men and women of the cycling world that the kid from Saint-Amand-Montrond looked like a winner. Down Sutter Street, past the prison, across the American River and back, Alaphilippe gave up only six seconds of his advantage.

He kept the lead at 16 seconds coming out of the mist of Santa Rosa and the surrounding Sonoma County wine country. Entering Sunday, his Tour of California championship had been all but bagged.

By the time the pretty girls splattered lipstick on his cheeks – an odd tradition that was not replicated by male pecks to the face of women’s champ Megan Guarnier – Alaphilippe’s final championship advantage was 21 seconds.

If Alaphilippe had been Exaggerator in the Preakness, his 21-second victory would have translated to 105 lengths, or about an entire home stretch. But he is only a human, and his victory margin was merely routine.

“It was really a stress day for a lot of the riders,” Alaphilippe said. “On the peloton, everybody wanted to be in front.”

When Alaphilippe wakes up Monday, presumably somewhere in California, everybody in France will have heard the latest in international cycling news. Last year, there “was a lot of reaction” to his second-place finish, he said.

There will be more now. And there will be expectation, too, for Alaphilippe, to keep it going for his hometown fans, in bigger tours to come.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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