How Milan-Sanremo proved that Alpecin-Deceuninck duo of Van der Poel and Philipsen could dominate the Classics

Credit should be given to the Belgian team for successfully balancing the ambitions of two of the sport's biggest stars, making them collectively stronger than ever

For all the hype about Visma-Lease a Bike’s Classics squad, and the unstoppable nature of UAE Team Emirates’ Tadej Pogačar since he’s turned his attention to one-day races, the triumph of Jasper Philipsen at Milan-Sanremo last weekend means that it’s actually Alpecin-Deceuninck who lead the way in terms of moment victories over the last two years. Though the first three of those four victories all came courtesy of Mathieu van der Poel, Jasper Philipsen’s success on the Italian Riviera proved that they are more than just a one-man team. And it also reiterated just what a special rider Philipsen is; perhaps even unique in recent cycling history, as someone who is not only the undisputed fastest sprinter in the world, capable of accumulating mass hauls of stage wins, but also a genuine contender for many of the major Classics – and not just those that end in bunch sprints.

The result has alas given Philipsen plenty of leverage in what is for him a contract year, and there has been speculation that he may look to sign for another team when his current deal with Alpecin-Deceuninck runs out at the end of the year, rather than replicate what teammate Van der Poel confirmed this week, and sign a multi-year extension. As the Belgian continues to develop as a Classics rider, there’s an argument that the two riders might find themselves stepping on each other’s toes, and that they may find their goals incompatible as they start to target the same races. However, based on the way that Milan-Sanremo unfolded, perhaps having Van der Poel on the same team as himself is a help rather than a hindrance for Philipsen.

The finishing sprint in Milan-Sanremo 2024 (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)

The Dutchman was instrumental in helping Philipsen win, sacrificing his own chances in the finale by sitting resolutely on Pogačar’s wheel rather than ride with him when the two went clear on the Poggio, then, after they were caught by the chase group featuring Philipsen, successfully chasing down every attack to ensure the race was decided by a sprint. “Without him, I probably would not have won,” said a grateful Philipsen at the finish.

It was a triumph of communication between the two teammates, an enviable display of being able to improvise and think of the spot and prioritise what’s best for the team rather than the individual. “On the descent of the Poggio, I begged Mathieu on the radio not to work with Pogačar because I had great legs,” explained Philipsen at the finish. Van der Poel corroborates, saying how “coming down from the Poggio I saw Jasper was there, and he told me he still had good legs, so I knew what to do.” “I could have sprinted maybe myself as well,” he continued, “but I think we are honest to each other, and if he says he has really good legs, I believe him.”

To keep such a clear head in as chaotic an atmosphere as the notoriously breathless final kilometres of Milan-Sanremo really is extraordinary, not to mention the selflessness of giving up his own personal ambition for victory. And the fact that Philipsen did indeed finish it off by winning the sprint proved that both were right to do so. Neither was this the first time Van der Poel has provided invaluable service in aid of Philipsen. Going into last year’s Tour de France, most expected the Dutchman to approach the race in the same way as he had the Giro d’Italia the previous year and the Tour de France the year before that, unleashing his aggressive instincts to attack at every opportunity and hunt stage wins. Instead, Van der Poel spent the first week of the race remaining quietly in the peloton, saving himself to lead-out Philipsen in the bunch sprints, and duly delivering him perfectly for the first three of his four stage wins. Philipsen might be the quickest sprinter in the world, but it’s doubtful he’d have attained quite such a haul of victories without his teammate so reliably putting it on a plate for him.

The reverse has been true, too, with Philipsen playing a key support role in Van der Poel’s Paris-Roubaix triumph last year. When the decisive selection of a dozen riders formed after the Arenberg Forest, Philipsen was there along with Van der Poel, making Alpecin-Deceuninck the only team with multiple representatives. And that proved to be of great value later when Van der Poel made his race-winning move on Carrefour de l'Arbre, as Philipsen was able to follow wheels and sap morale in the chase behind. He ultimately sprinted for second place to seal a one-two for the team, and announced himself as a major contender on the cobbles for the first time.

Philipsen and Van der Poel on the podium of Paris-Roubaix last year (Image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix)

That Paris-Roubaix ride, as well as last weekend’s Milan-Sanremo, looks set to form a benchmark for the upcoming cobbled Classics this spring, as Philipsen again joins forces with Van der Poel to re-enact their deadly double-act. They’re set to ride four more Classics this spring, each of them among the most prestigious on the calendar: Gent-Wevelgem this weekend, followed by the Tour of Flanders, then a defence of their Paris-Roubaix title, and finally a venture into the non-cobbled, hilly terrain in Amstel Gold Race.

Van der Poel has always flourished in these races, winning all of them apart from Gent-Wevelgem, but this will be the first campaign in which Philipsen lines up as a co-leader. His emergence will give the team a whole new dimension to approach these races, another rider who can also win all of them, and therefore a degree of tactical options and unpredictability that haven’t had before. This extra dimension could be essential as Alpecin-Deceuninck takes on the collective might of Visma-Lease a Bike. The Dutch team might have been notable by their absence at Milan-Sanremo, with a seemingly ill Christophe Laporte failing to finish, but reinforcements are on the way for the upcoming cobbled Classics in the form of Dylan van Baarle and, of course, Wout van Aert, along with Jan Tratnik and Matteo Jorgenson, both of whom starred at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

Tratnik’s success at that race, along with Van Aert’s the following day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, sealed a perfect Opening Weekend for Visma-Lease a Bike, and once reinforced their status as the team to beat. Yet as both last week’s Milan-Sanremo and last year’s Paris-Roubaix demonstrated, the addition of Philipsen to Van der Poel has made Alpecin-Deceuninck a real force to be reckoned with, and a genuine threat to Visma-Lease a Bike’s supremacy in the Classics. With the likes of cobbled veterans Søren Kragh Andersen and Gianni Vermeersch also to be deployed as domestiques, there’s plenty of fuel in the engine room, too.

Visma-Lease a Bike may be determined to bring an end to their three-and-a-half-year monument drought at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in a few weeks, but overcoming this Van der Poel-Philipsen partnership is going to be some challenge. Some epic battles on the cobbles are on the horizon this spring; and this time not just between the familiar rivals Van Aert and Van der Poel, but their whole teams.

Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix

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