Philipsen: Pro cycling's young sensation

It's the morning after Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, and the rain falls heavily outside Jasper Philipsen's childhood home on the outskirts of Ham. The UAE Team Emirates rider completed his first Opening Weekend less than 24-hours early but he shows no signs of the toils he was put under when he offers Cyclingnews shelter from the icy downpour. We're here to meet one of Belgium cycling's young sensations; a rider who not only heralds from the same neck of the woods as Tom Boonen but has been repeatedly compared with the great man too.

If you're not familiar with Philipsen's career until now that's perhaps understandable given that Wout van Aert and his Dutch rival Mathieu van der Poel have been representing the new kids on the block this season. The pair have torn up the scripts and discarded the reputations of far more established cobbled specialists this year.

Philipsen, on the other hand, has had a less prolific start to his career in the elite ranks. Although at the point of this interview he was the only one of the trio to have won a WorldTour race having taken a stage of the Tour Down Under in January. Ham, however, is a million miles from the heat of Adelaide and as Philipsen leads us into his home he retells his Opening Weekend experience.

"It was a hard experience but I enjoyed it," he says in between taking our coffee orders and busily scanning the kitchen cupboards of his parent's home for some cake to accompany the beverages. 

"It was always hectic and that feeling never stopped. The pace was always hard but I think that it was a good experience for. It was hard to put a plan together because only two of us on the team had ridden Opening Weekend before. We knew it would be difficult to get a result, but we tried to keep the position. I suffered a bit but my legs felt like they were slowly filling with acid. I learned from that day that I needed to be near the front but when the split came on the Kwaremont I was there. That was a good step but I had to suffer a lot just to be there.

"I knew that it wouldn't be easy. I expected to use it as just experience and show myself where I could. The results weren't great but no one expected them from me. I'm just 21 so I want to go back, get stronger every year and gain experience."

Experience is a word Philipsen keep repeating yet his parent's home holds glimpses of a young rider who has already cut his teeth in the brutally competitive world of U23 racing in Belgium.

Jasper Philipsen (far right) and his brother (left) crowd around Tom Boonen at the Belgian nationals in 2006

In Tom Boonen's frame

Other than for Philipsen, and the family's faithful Labrador Mia, who hasn't left his side since our arrival, the household is empty.

The trophy from the Tour Down Under stage win sits neatly in one corner of the kitchen, while after a quick rummage in another room Philipsen returns with a framed photo of himself, his brother and Tom Boonen. The photo was taken at the Belgian national is 2006, less than a year after Boonen had won the Madrid Worlds, and beer in hand, the Belgian superstar is flanked by a very young Philipsen on each side.

"When I think back, my first memories were of the Classics but I remember being on the Muur when Devolder won. I can't remember if it was his first or second win he had but I also remember going to the QuickStep VIP tent after the Belgian national championships. Tom was there, Nick Nuyens was there and it was the time when Tom was a world champion, so it must have been 2006. I loved going to racing," he recalls as he wipes a thin layer of dust off the frame's surface.

Nowadays Boonen fills in as a part-time training partner when Philipsen is back in town. He splits his time at his folks and at the apartment he shares with his girlfriend a few miles away, and if Boonen isn't available there's more than enough riders to fill the time with.

Yet Philipsen didn't always aspire to be a pro biker. His first love was football - although he preferred playing than watching - but a BMX-related injury left him with a muscle imbalance that scuppered his future on the pitch.

"Things were different with cycling, because I had a real passion watching the Classics, and that's why I started cycling. I got my first bike when I was 12 or 13 and it was a second-hand aluminium Trek that my family found for me. My brother played soccer, my older sister played volleyball, and I chose cycling. It was the most expensive sport but my family understood that and supported me. I started racing soon after, but I didn't have ambitions of being a pro rider at that stage. I just wanted to have fun and I loved racing my bike."

If you're Belgian child coming through the junior ranks you're never far from an opportunity to race your bike. So Philipsen's weekends were spent traveling around the region and he soon up picked up a healthy love of the sport. By the time he became national junior champion and made the grade for the BMC Development squad, his focus on being an elite athlete had hardened.

"As a kid, there were races in every town. It's not as big as soccer in Belgium but it's still huge and there's a lot of riders with talent. When I was junior I started to take things more seriously. I started to train more and I began to really think seriously about turning pro," he says.

"Even then, it was just a wish because I knew how competitive it would be. I never said to my parents 'I want to be a pro' and no one from the family was into cycling before me but they were really important in supporting me. It was a learning process for all of us and they would come and watch me race as a kid. I had to finish school and then I tried to combine studies at university with racing but it was starting to be a bit of a struggle when I was on the BMC development team. I was basically half a student."

Jasper Philipsen's biggest fan might be the family dog Mia. During our visit she was constantly by his side. However, we couldn't decide if that was down to pure affection or because Philipsen was closest to the biscuits.

Tough choices and the move to UAE

At that point, Philipsen was faced with a tough choice. He chose cycling over his physiotherapy studies and threw himself deeper into his number one passion. He signed up for Axel Merck's development team, Hagens Berman Axeon, and became one of their leading riders. He claimed an incredible third place behind Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann in last year's De Panne, and then won a stage in the Tour of Utah in August. These results may have stood out but they had also come a year after wins in the U23 edition of Paris-Tours and the first of two stages in the Baby Giro.

Joxean Fernández Matxin, who had been a highly-regarded talent scout for QuickStep, but moved into the management at UAE Team Emirates, quickly approached Philipsen during the 2018 campaign.

The move to UAE Emirates may have come as a surprise given the fact that Philipsen had been on the radar of every Belgian WorldTour and Pro Continental squad after a few months into his debut campaign the choice appears to have been a wise one.

He was impressed with Matxin's plans, and bought into the way in which the team had improved their structure and included Allan Peiper in the staff overhaul. The team from the Gulf convinced Philipsen that he would be given space and time to develop as a rider and that although he would be dropped into the deep end when it came to racing the biggest one-day races in the world he would be free of excess pressure. He would be tasked with 'living and learning' as he tells us, and that the likes of Alexander Kristoff and Fernando Gaviria would be pillars of support and advice, should he need them.

"Having some freedom really played a roll," he tells us.

"I knew that if I went to other teams like QuickStep it would be really hard to make the selection for these Classics races. In our team, it's a bit more open and we don't have that many riders who really like them," he says with a broad smile.

"I knew that if I came here I would almost always be in the selection for the Classics races. We had Kristoff and Gaviria in the UAE Tour. That was the most important race for us, so the 'A-Team' went there. That meant more freedom for the rest of us in Opening Weekend."

Peiper's influence has also been important. The Australian lives in Flanders, and before the Opening Weekend he took Philipsen, along with other young riders under his charge - on a recon of several of the spring races.

"There are some similarities in that I'm fast and I love to do the Classics," he says as he begins to take the framed photo back to its rightful place in the house.

"Again, if I can be as good as him, we'll have to see in the future. I've had success in those races as a youth but then you need to step up when you get to this level. Maybe some people have expectations on me but I just have to see what comes. I can't force my body. We'll have to see how it develops. I don't know the answers or the future, who does? I'll just keep working and doing my best.

Philipsen has plenty of years to reach his goals in the sport but what's striking, even at the age of 21, is his mature outlook on the sport and his future.

He chose to ride to Axeon because he saw their race programme and set-up and decided it was the smartest direction to follow. For a teenager with little experience of world such a decision can't be taken lightly or underestimated. It's still early days but the move to UAE looks like another step in the right direction.

Now all he needs, is time. 

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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.