There are two starkly different images in existence of Jasper Philipsen on the Champs-Élysées. The first, taken in 2021, shows the Belgian sitting on Parisian tarmac in tears with his head in his hands, morose, lost, broken. He’d just finished second to Wout van Aert on the final stage of the 2021 Tour de France, and it was his sixth top-three finish of the race. He’d been so close, again and again, but he hadn’t won. And for sprinters, winning is everything.
“Second is good but is not good enough,” Philipsen says, speaking during his off-season. “Definitely in cycling and sprinting it's only first place that counts.”
The more recent image of Philipsen on the Champs-Élysées, one from this year’s Tour de France, is a much sweeter picture, and one that the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider is far more likely to have on his mantlepiece. It shows Philipsen crossing the finish line and releasing a Hulk-like, wild, manic celebration as he takes the first Tour stage win of his career. “A box ticked,” he says, with a grin.
But despite getting that elusive Tour victory this year (arguably the most important of the season for the fast men) Philipsen has this quality, one that’s seen in many of the sport’s greatest sprinters – think the straight-talking Manxman Mark Cavendish or the honest Aussie Caleb Ewan – he’s never satisfied and will admit that he always wants more.
Image: Agence Zoom
“I had two goals this season, one was winning in the Tour de France and having at least 10 victories, but I had nine victories in the end, so it was not what I really aimed for,” he explains. This answer comes somewhat as a surprise to me. I'd expected Philipsen to be waxing lyrical about his season, satisfied with finally proving he can perform at crunch time, but I don’t have the mentality of a winning sprinter, or the hunger for success that the Belgian rider clearly has in abundance.
“Next year, I just want to win more. As a sprinter, I'm mostly always there if it's a bunch sprint. There are maybe one or two times in the season that I miss the sprint by positioning or by getting boxed in, but most of the time, I can find my way pretty well. I think I got maybe 11 or 12 second places, and then nine wins so if I can convert the second places into wins, that will change a lot,” Philipsen says.
Saying he wants to win more is one thing, but making that dream into reality is another. The 24-year-old is able to acutely analyse his strengths and weaknesses, and believes that he has traits that set him apart from his rivals.
“I think there are some really strong sprinters but I can say that this year I was one of the fastest, not the fastest, but one of them,” he says pragmatically. “In a pure sprint, I think [Fabio] Jakobsen is really strong, but at the Tour de France I was more fresh in the end, I could still maintain my speed with all the fatigue, so maybe that's a strength of mine.”
“That was also because all the preparation was done really well for the Tour. I was in good shape, I could survive the mountains pretty easily so I could take some rest when it's needed and push the gas when there were opportunities. I could really divide my strength through Tour and that was important. I didn't have to go full every day or help another teammate for the GC. If it was a climbing day we could choose to relax and survive the day, mentally and physically that’s easier.”
When looking back on his season, there’s something that Philipsen keeps mentioning when questioned on how he will convert those close calls into triumphant wins more often and it’s his leadout man at Alpecin-Deceuninck, Jonas Rickaert. For the majority of the 2022 season, Rickaert was sidelined from racing after undergoing surgery for a strangulated femoral artery at the end of June. He returned to racing in the Omloop van het Houtland in late September, aiming to resume his well-practiced duties as Philipsen’s loyal teammate. In Rickaert’s first race back, Philipsen took victory.
Image: Alex Broadway/Agence Zoom
“I think this year, we can't be really happy with our leadout,” Philipsen explains, honestly. “Mainly because our most important chain was Jonas Rickaert was out for the year. I think if I had him more this year, I would have won more often but he wasn't there. We tried a lot with different riders, the team also don't want to have specifically one leadout train, but they want to keep it flexible, but that's always hard because everybody still needs to learn.”
Philipsen understands that having a strong leadout and a group of riders around him who he can trust is a key ingredient to helping him win bike races. It’s something that he wants Alpecin-Deceuninck to work on over the upcoming winter.
“It's hard to keep one group together, that's something I think we still can improve on. We spoke about it and maybe we will do some training camps specifically for the sprint. But it’s hard because it's very specialist and there are not many specialists in the peloton to really focus on sprints alone and who also want to do this job fully committed.”
Alpecin-Deceuninck is a team that has long been focussed on sprinting. This is often to their advantage when it comes to chasing points and adding to their win tally, but it can see them lose talented climbers, such as Jay Vine this year, who look for more support for general classification ambitions. It’s also thanks to this focus that the Belgian team often looks to have multiple options when it comes to a protected sprinter. In 2021, they had both Tim Merlier and Philipsen as key sprinters, and next season the talented fast man, Kaden Groves, will join the team from BikeExchange-Jayco. Much can be made about the internal conflicts and feuds that having multiple sprinters in a team can cause, but Philipsen argues that it’s not something that bothers him.
“It can be difficult, but I think our team is not focused on GC or anything else so we always have faster riders to have wins and collect many points. That's just the DNA of our team. Now Tim's moving out [Tim Merlier will join Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl in 2022] but there's some more fast guys coming in like Kaden Groves, so I will always have other sprinters in a team.”
“I don't think Tim leaving will really change a lot, maybe more for the media, but I just do my own thing. I try to be in my best shape possible. It's not like Tim would have made any change to my shape, or the opportunities I got from the team. I could do mostly all the races that I wanted to, so it's not going to make a huge difference.”
Image: James Startt/Agence Zoom
Looking ahead to 2023, hopefully with Jonas Rickaert back in full strength as his leadout man, Philipsen has impressive ambitions, and not just in the Grand Tours. While he says the Tour de France will be a main focus, he also has his sights set on some of the flatter Classics which come earlier in the season too.
“[Milan] San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem will be my main goals. I want to really try there and try to taste the feeling of racing for the win. I was previously never really in my best shape in the Classic period, so I hope to be good this year there,” Philipsen says. “Flanders is something different that's too difficult at the moment, but we'll see how my shape is in February, March and April, around that period.”
Philipsen argues that he’s more suited to the style of Grand Tour racing, rather than the one-day events, thanks to his impressive endurance. “It's the engine. I get better with long and hard days like in the Tour. After 21 days of racing, if I'm in good shape, I can maintain and grow inside the race. The one-day races are always racing, resting, racing, resting, that's not the best for me so I need to search for something to find the best shape possible in those one-day races.”
The green jersey at the Tour de France is also something that Phiipsen admits he dreams of winning one day, but explains it will be difficult with the current crop of riders who contest that competition.
“I think if a rider like Wout van Aert goes for it or Mathieu [Van der Poel] in good condition, it's almost impossible for a rider like me to win. But if Wout, for example, focuses on the World's next year, which is only a few weeks later, then maybe there are some opportunities for me.”
Above all, though, Philipsen is simply chasing wins. He loves the taste of success, loves the rush of inching his front wheel over the finish line first, and wants to feel the satisfaction of being the very best. It’s this intrinsic drive that makes Philipsen so good, and hungry for more.
“I've never hit ten wins, last year I had nine and this year also nine so I want to have it in double digits” he says. “If everything falls in the right place, I think it's possible. It's a small difference between winning and losing and we just need to make it click.”
Cover image: James Startt/Agence Zoom