Jasper Philipsen contested six bunch finishes at the Tour de France and placed in the top three on each occasion. At Pontivy, he was beaten into second place by his Alpecin-Fenix teammate Tim Merlier. At Châteauroux, he was Mark Cavendish’s dauphin. On the Champs-Elysées, he was in the picture, but it was his fellow countryman Wout van Aert who carried off the spoils.
Philipsen’s consistency may have been heartening, but the string of near misses must have been maddening. If it dented his confidence, however, it didn’t show in Burgos on stage 2 of the Vuelta a España, where the Belgian delivered a perfectly weighted late surge to pip Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) to the line in his first bunch sprint since Paris.
“I don’t know if it changed my confidence,” Philipsen said after taking a seat in the press conference truck on Sunday evening. “Today was just another sprint and another opportunity, and everything fell in the right spot. I’m just happy I could finish it off.”
Philipsen’s win completes a remarkable sequence for Alpecin-Fenix, who had already notched up victory this season on the corresponding stages of the Giro d’Italia and Tour. On the eve of the Vuelta’s opening bunch sprint, Philipsen was playfully reminded of the fact in his team’s WhatsApp group. No pressure.
“It’s really funny that this happens because yesterday they put it in group chat, that everybody won in the first sprint we could win,” Philipsen laughed. “But that’s not something that just comes by itself. We were all lucky, and also everybody was there and doing their job 100 per cent, and that’s really important in sprint finishes.
“It was amazing to see all my teammates therein the finale, with everybody in the front line. I had all the support from the team, and that’s how you can win sprints. We did a really good job, and each of us can be very happy tonight. We’re starting this Grand Tour on a good way.”
Philipsen opened his account in Grand Tours when he beat Pascal Ackermann to the line at Puebla de Sanabria during last November’s rescheduled Vuelta, but that was his final race in UAE Team Emirates colours. A squad built increasingly around Tadej Pogačar offered dwindling scope for a young fast man to sate his ambition. Ahead of the 2021 season, Philipsen opted to move to Pro Continental level and join Alpecin-Fenix.
It was only notionally a step down, mind, given that Mathieu van der Poel’s performances in 2020 had guaranteed Alpecin-Fenix an invitation to all of the Grand Tours. The presence of both Van der Poel and Tim Merlier meant that Philipsen has sometimes had to wait his turn to lead the line, but riding for a team so dedicated to teeing up sprints carried an obvious appeal.
“I think this team is really focusing on sprints and classics, that’s the real DNA of the team,” said Philipsen, who won Scheldeprijs and two stages of the Tour of Turkey during a purple patch in April. “The team has great recruitment and great riders. A sprint culture is something that has to grow as well, but for sure it’s already there on this team. As a Pro Conti team, I think we have shown that we’re capable of winning on the highest level in the sprints.”
Philipsen had been a faller during Saturday evening’s opening time trial in Burgos, though he made light of the injuries sustained as he made his way through the mixed zone in Caleruega ahead of stage 2. “Let’s say I'm 90 per cent recovered, but I won't be bothered much by the injuries during the stage,” said Philipsen.
He was as good as his word, unleashing a searing effort on the Calle Victoria to come around his former teammate Juan Sebastian Molano and then hold off the fast-closing Jakobsen for the win. Jakobsen is racing a Grand Tour for the first time since his horrific, career-threatening crash at last year’s Tour de Pologne. Making the start line was already a victory of sorts, even if he expressed disappointment at losing out to Philipsen here. “I think I should be happy but not really,” Jakobsen smiled ruefully.
“It’s great to see Fabio back, it’s already a big achievement for him that he is here and competing and he also almost won. I think he’s in great shape,” Philipsen said. “It’s great to see his progression after his big crash one year ago. He will for sure be competing in the sprints here and he will win many races in the future.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.