Beating the Deceuninck-QuickStep duo of Sam Bennett and Mark Cavendish after a lead-out by Michael Mørkøv in the Scheldeprijs is what 23-year-old Alpecin-Fenix sprinter Jasper Philipsen did in Schoten on Wednesday, and it's what one calls a big win.
Indeed, it brings back memories to Cavendish of his breakthrough win in Schoten back in 2007. That win was the prelude to the Manxman's splendid career that for now stands at three Scheldeprijs wins, a world title and 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, among many others.
Philipsen, who has a Grand Tour stage win to his name in the form of a stage at the 2019 Vuelta a España, didn’t like any comparisons made between him and Cavendish or with another past Scheldeprijs winner, Tom Boonen, shortly after his win at the race.
"It's an important and nice victory over top sprinters," Philipsen said after the finish. "Obviously, this is one of the most beautiful one-day races one can win as a sprinter. This is one that matters.
"I’m really satisfied. It's not the start though. I’m not a neo-pro. I’ve been racing as a pro for two seasons. I’m paving on the way. Let’s hope that there’s more nice wins coming up.
"Tom won so many Classics and different kinds of races. In those races I’m not able to mix in. It’s hard to make that comparison."
Philipsen, who celebrated his first win at his new Alpecin-Fenix team, continued with a statement of his ambitions in the sport, which include going to the Tour de France and battling with the top sprinters like Bennett and Bora-Hansgrohe's Pascal Ackermann, both of whom he beat in Schoten.
"It’s my ambition to play a role in the spring Classics too," he said. "The focus is now on the bunch sprints. I’ve got the biggest chance to win in those races. Today proved that if everything goes my way, then I know that I shouldn’t be afraid of anybody.
"Today was the first step. Then we will see if I’m ready to take the next step but not yet. The next step is to confirm this. That is heading to the Tour and being a factor in those sprints too."
Sprinting against the likes of Bennett and Cavendish isn’t something that happens every Wednesday afternoon. Nevertheless Philipsen wasn’t stressed out.
"If I didn’t win today that wouldn’t be something to be ashamed of. There’s so many fast guys here. I wasn’t really nervous. I did feel confident because my legs felt really good," he said.
The patience from the Alpecin-Fenix sprint train, and their strong move on the right-hand side of the road with Belgian Champion Dries De Bondt and then Jonas Rickaert pulling for Philipsen, was in stark contrast to the classic approach from the powerful Deceuninck-QuickStep train on the left-hand side of the road.
"That move in the sprint was fantastic. It’s the best lead-out in the world that we’re professionally flicking here," Philipsen said. "QuickStep had the numbers and strong sprinters but we didn’t look at them. We rode our own sprint. The three of us just tried to find each other.
"There’s so many scenarios that can unfold and you can be forced to brake. We found each other on the right moment and were able to do a full lead-out. Dries could do a full lead-out and take us to the front and then Jonas could take over. I just had to put my trust in Jonas. He was able to keep his cool. He’s got the experience to do that. That was the key to the success.
"I just had to do the final 200 metres. It worked out perfectly. Everything has to go your way and fall into place. Today that was the case. At the end of the race I also enjoyed good legs. That’s all necessary to be able to win."
A strong Alpecin-Fenix
The strength of the Alpecin-Fenix team is a hot topic nowadays. Despite not being a WorldTour team, the Belgian outlet manages to outperform many of the highest tier squads. Mathieu van der Poel might be the headline act, but sprinter Tim Merlier has three wins to his name in 2021, too.
Philipsen himself moved to the team over the winter, coming from the WorldTour level as member of the UAE Team Emirates. Alpecin-Fenix will receive invites to all WorldTour races this season, having topped the European Tour rankings in 2020.
"The team is doing incredibly well with the resources they have and the riders they have," Philipsen said. "We’re positioned fourth in the team ranking. For a ProTeam, that’s super. We can’t complain. The team is just building up and improving everywhere.
"In the beginning it was for sure just the team of Mathieu. I think they’re building on their path. In the future I only see this team growing. We’re on the right track."
The team even had the luxury to choose between Philipsen and their other top sprinter Merlier on Wednesday. Merlier has Le Samyn, the GP Monseré, and the Bredene-Koksijde Classic on his 2021 palmarès, but even so the team opted to go for Philipsen, who hadn't won yet this year but did take second behind Bennett at the Classic Brugge-De Panne.
At the end of last year, Merlier and Philipsen got into a bit of an argument after the fall Scheldeprijs when blocking each other in the sprint. Philipsen didn’t want to get into a similar position once again and planned to open up the sprint from far out.
"I moved into the lead because I really wanted to ride my sprint because last year that wasn’t possible," Philipsen said. "I didn’t want to make the same mistake. I felt like they were coming back because there were fast guys but then the line came closer.
"I was really happy that I crossed the line in first place. This victory makes up for a lot that wasn’t going so well. At the start of the season, I wasn’t at the level where I wanted to be. Perhaps I needed the UAE Tour to get into the rhythm but we had to pull out from that one. After Paris-Nice I felt that my form was improving. I knew that everything would come together. Obviously I’m glad to win, also to show the team that I can do it."
Nowadays it almost seems normal for young riders to storm to the front in no time, but Philipsen played down any high expectations to match the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Remco Evenepoel.
He has the belief that he can become one of the top sprinters in the peloton, but insists that it will take some time to get there.
"In the past, sprinters probably stepped into the spotlight at a younger age than the climbers. Nowadays there’s Pogačar, Evenepoel and Hirschi. There’s a lot of trends that are broken nowadays. Everybody has to follow his own line. We’ll see where I end up," he said.
"On Sunday I start in the Tour of Turkey. That stage race was added to my schedule because there were some races that fell away [due to COVID-19] with UAE, Paris-Roubaix and a French race. The form is good, so it would be a pity to take a break already. Then there will be altitude training and some races to build up to the Tour."
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