At the beginning of a stage with nearly seven hours of riding and 4,000 metres of climbing, few would have predicted a bunch sprint to decide the Vuelta a España's longest day. When it materialised, Belgium's Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) was there to reap the biggest benefits.
Riding the second Grand Tour of his career at 22 years of age, but clearly able to punch above his weight, Philipsen stuck resolutely with the main bunch despite the appalling weather conditions of the race's rolling second half to duke it out in a fraught, uncontrolled finale.
The young Belgian was able to out-power veteran Grand Tour stage winners of the calibre of Michael Mørkøv (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) on a draggy uphill finish, claiming what represents a breakthrough win in his career.
"This win means a lot to me, it's my first Grand Tour stage and I hope it's not my last one. Of course I will enjoy this a lot, it's a special moment for me, I'll try to enjoy it as much as I can and make it through to Madrid," Philipsen said.
Second on stage 4 at the Vuelta's first bunch sprint in Ejea de los Caballeros, Philipsen got a gap after opening up his sprint too early but was overtaken by Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep) on the line. After a fourth place behind Ackermann in the second week sprint at Aguilar de Campoo, Philipsen's third strike was, finally, the good one on Thursday.
"At the beginning of the day I never expected a bunch sprint or even [thought] about winning a stage," Philipsen said. "It looked really hard on the profile, it was one of the stages with the most metres of climbing and the longest of the Vuelta too. It was definitely not an easy, flat stage.
"On top of that I had my worst day of the Vuelta yesterday so far [Wednesday] and I felt bad at the beginning of today's. But I felt better and better, I didn't expect it, but at the end I started believing in it.
"I like uphill finishes a little bit, and this one wasn't so hard, so it definitely suited me. I'm very proud of getting this win."
Set to move onto Alpecin-Fenix next year - "we'll see him back with us some day," insisted Joxean Fernandez Matxin, a UAE sports director on the Vuelta - Philipsen was able to enjoy some sterling support from teammate Ivo Oliveira in the last kilometre. Afterwards, he loudly - and logically - celebrated the win with UAE riders and staff gathered on the far side of the finish line.
"This victory means a lot to the team, not just to me. We're all young, we've been working a lot for the last years with the Oliveira brothers [Ivo and Rui] to try and perform as best as possible in the sprint, and this is a nice reward for us. I'm sure they enjoyed this victory," Philipsen said about Ivo and Rui, both in the race.
On top of any usual stage win celebrations, Philipsen was asked what he would look forward to the most when he got to the hotel after the exceptionally cold, wet stage of the Vuelta and a two hour transfer.
"Probably a hot bath," he answered with a grin.
But assuming he gets through the mountains on Friday and Saturday, there is also a bunch sprint stage in Madrid to look forward to as well.
"I love you so much!"Tears, euphoria, disbelief - it's fair to say @TeamUAEAbuDhabi's @JasperPhilipsen was happy after his win on Stage 15 of @lavuelta 😂_______🇪🇸 #LaVuelta #LaVuelta20 pic.twitter.com/enbXtksDl1November 5, 2020
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