At just 20 years old, Belgian Jasper Philipsen has already amassed an impressive palmares in the U23 ranks. But when Hagens Berman Axeon director Axel Merckx suggested he skip the U23 showcase at the Tour de l'Avenir later this month in favour of testing himself against the pros at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, he was hesitant.
"I really had to persuade him to come here," Merckx told Cyclingnews. "L'Avenir is near, but I told him that for his development and his future it would be good if he could come here and prove that he could beat the fastest sprinters with the pros. We know he's the fastest one of the U23s, but he should try and beat the pros."
Philipsen acquiesced to his director's wishes, and it paid dividends Friday in Salt Lake City when he beat stage 1 and 3 winner Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) in an uphill sprint at the end of a difficult circuit race to take his first-ever pro win.
It was obviously a special moment for Philipsen, and it couldn't have come at a better time for his team.
"This particularly feels pretty special to me because obviously with what happened with Adrien [Costa]," Merckx said, referring to the former Axeon U23 star who lost a leg late last month in a mountain climbing accident.
"Adrien was asking me yesterday how the race went, and I wanted to tell him how we wanted to win for him just to give him a little bit of courage, and what Japser did today, I have goose bumps."
Philipsen is no stranger to the podium's top step. He was Belgium's junior time trial champion in 2015, and he won the road race in 2016. In 2017, while riding for the now-defunct BMC Development Team, Philipsen won a stage and the overall at Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux, won Paris-Tours Espoirs and took a stage and the sprints jersey at the Baby Giro.
So far this year with Hagens Berman Axeon, Philipsen won the overall again Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux on the strength of two stage wins. He also won the race's sprint jersey. He added another stage win at the Baby Giro as well.
Nevertheless, plucking a stage win or two at l'Avenir is an important result for any developing rider, hence the extra effort required to persuade Philipsen to choose Utah instead.
"I spoke with Axel about it before, and I think it's nicer to try and go for a stage win in a pro race than in a U23 race," Phlipsen said in the post-stage press conference. "L'Avenir is one of the biggest races for U23s in the year, but I'm not complaining now that I came here, so maybe it's a good decision."
Philipsen came close to the win on Thursday in Layton, but McCabe was able to slip past him at the line with a bike throw. The roles were reversed on Friday as Philipsen had to get by McCabe at the line.
"We had kind of a plan," Philipsen said, "but it was a bit special because the break was still there and we had two guys when Sean [Bennett] made the move in the end on the last lap, and he had also a good punch and we had good confidence in him as well. So it was just a bit of waiting to see how it would turn out in the end. And then just before the last couple of corners it all came back together.
"I felt a bit boxed in, but I saw [McCabe's] white jersey before me and I knew that was the wheel I needed to take," he said.
Philipsen hopped on McCabe's wheel and then moved up on the inside, squeezing between McCabe and the barriers and making contact with the UnitedHealthcare sprinter's hip as he went past. It came down to an uphill bike throw, and Philipsen got the advantage this time.
"Yesterday was pretty close already," Merckx said. "And the team did a perfect job yesterday with a perfect lead out. Today we did an excellent job again with [Edward] Anderson in the breakaway and Sean [Bennett] going across. We really tried to aim for a stage win here, and that's why we've been trying every day. It's the first win of his pro career, and there are going to be many more."
Unfortunately for Philipsen, his opportunities for stage wins in Utah are likely over. Saturday's queen stage goes up and over Guardsman Pass before the final climb to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort for a total of 2,423 metres of elevation gain over 123km.
Hagens Berman Axeon will try again, but they got the stage win they came to get, and the GC fireworks on the final climbs of the race might leave them wanting.
"It's two very hard days, and we don't have any pure climber, climbers here," Merckx said, looking ahead to the weekend. "I know Sean did well the other day [during stage 2's climb up Mount Nebo - ed.], but we really came here with Jasper."
US Champion Jonny Brown echoed his director's thoughts about the final two stages.
"Tomorrow is going to be a bit of a shock to the system after today," Brown told Cyclingnews. "It was short, but it was definitely hard all day and fast. Tomorrow is a little bit different with a lot of big climbs, so we'll see how it goes. Having two almost hour-long climbs tomorrow is going to be a lot for some people."