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Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe Leads Tour De France As Race Enters 1nd Half


French people are more riveted than usual to the Tour de France this year. A French cyclist has not won the Tour in 34 years, and this year, there are two grabbing the world's attention. Damian McCall is a reporter with Agence France-Presse, and he's been covering the tour.

Welcome to the program.

DAMIAN MCCALL: Hello, everybody.

SHAPIRO: Let's start with the cyclist who is currently in the lead as the race enters its second half. Who is he? Tell us about him.

MCCALL: This is a guy called Julian Alaphilippe, and he is, in fact - in terms of road racing, cycling, he is the world's No. 1. And Julian - he's riding for a Belgian team called Quick-Step, and he's been wearing something called the yellow jersey, which the overall leader of the Tour de France wears so the public on the roadside can pick out the fast-moving peloton sweeping past them. Alaphilippe is in the lead - his eighth day he's going to be wearing the yellow jersey.

SHAPIRO: But even though he's in the lead, he's not expected to win. Explain that to us.

MCCALL: All right. He's basically a one-day racer. His team go for one-day races. There are many prizes on offer in the Tour de France. The team that are expected to win it are not trying to win at all stages. They're trying to get the best overall time. And they have two contenders for that - very different men. One's the 33-year-old Welshman, the defending champion. The other one's a 22-year-old Colombian whiz kid, Bernal. He's currently third. So they're second and third.

But Alaphilippe seems to be digging deeper every day. He's a former soldier. And he's extremely tough, really affable, straight-talking. The things he's done - they've set on fire the passions of the people, really. He's just sort of gone on a rampage - these break-for-the-border dashes for the finishing line. And he's succeeded three or four times, and everybody's talking about him.

SHAPIRO: And then there is another Frenchman who is one of the favorites to win the race. Tell us about him.

MCCALL: That's right - Thibaut Pinot, very different, a very emotional man. And he fell into a trap a few days ago and lost a bit of time. But he's still in with a very big shot. So he's vowed to fight back on Saturday and may well get back into a position. Thibaut Pinot is about 28, 29 years old. He hasn't raced here for a while. He'd been racing in Italy. He really is a very, very popular man. And if he does win the Tour de France, he will be the most popular man in France.

SHAPIRO: Now, as we've said, the race is just past its halfway point, and a Frenchman has not won the Tour de France in 34 years. So what's the attitude and sentiment like among people in these small French towns where the cyclists are whizzing past?

MCCALL: I had the great opportunity just yesterday, in fact, to cover the 200-kilometer stage on the back of a motorbike. I mean, the roadsides are just packed. It's a very popular sporting event. There's no pay. You don't - it's not in a stadium. The stadium is the country itself. Today at the finish line - I went down to the finish line when we arrived at the finish town, and there was about 4 kilometers packed four, five deep towards the finishing line three hours before the guys arrived.


MCCALL: There was drinking and singing and families, grandparents - and the kids are having their school holidays here.

SHAPIRO: Do French people seem particularly attuned to the possibility of a French cyclist possibly winning it?

MCCALL: Well, can I tell you something very French?

SHAPIRO: Of course.

MCCALL: No (laughter).

SHAPIRO: No. They don't care.

MCCALL: Well, I think they care. They care deeply. They're just skeptical because they haven't won it since Bernard Hinault won his fifth in 1985.

SHAPIRO: The French people don't believe this is actually their year. They're not allowing themselves to hope.

MCCALL: Well, Julian Alaphilippe is in the yellow jersey. They're starting to believe that maybe he can take it down to maybe the last three days. But, you know, I'm not sure he can concentrate all the way. They're not sure he can concentrate. He's too emotional.

SHAPIRO: Damian McCall is a reporter with Agence France-Presse.

Thank you for joining us.

MCCALL: Thank you very much. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRAFTWERK'S "TOUR DE FRANCE ETAPE 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.