On stage four of this year's Tour de France, Jasper Philipsen thought he had finally broken through on the biggest stage, outsprinting the bunch to cross the line first.
Sadly for the Belgian, however, Wout van Aert was up the road ahead, and had already won an impressive stage to Calais. The second place was just another to add to his long list of near misses at the Tour de France: in just three editions, the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider has finished in the top five without winning ten times.
Almost a fortnight later, at the other end of the country, Philipsen finally delivered the result that he has been threatening, winning ahead of Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) in Carcassonne.
The 24-year-old finished third on the same finish straight last year, something which he said helped him to victory on Sunday. The men who finished ahead of him, Mark Cavendish and Michael Mørkøv, were either not here (the former) or way behind the peloton (the latter).
"Knowing the finish line was pretty crucial," Philipsen said in his post-stage press conference. "But not being here with Mark Cavendish also played a role."
It must be helpful for one's confidence to know that the most successful sprinter in history is not a rival in this year's race, especially when he beat you four times last year.
There have not been a lot of opportunities for sprinters at this year's Tour, with Sunday's stage just the third that ended in a bunch sprint. It has been difficult to say at times why the fast men have bothered to even come to this edition.
"The parcours is not really in our advantage," the 24-year-old explained. "I think we had also a good opportunity in Calais, but then Wout decided differently. I think last Friday was also a good opportunity, but a strong group went up the road. Today everything felt in the right place.
"New chances will come, that must be the motivation. If there was no sprint left, it would be mentally tougher. You have to keep on fighting every day for chances like this. It’s not easy to look forward for such a long time. Today shows it’s worth it, and there are hopefully two opportunities next week."
Three stages ending in bunch sprints, and three different winners. The fight to be the fastest man in the peloton looks like it could be between this trio, Philipsen, Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Fabio Jakobsen (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), although the latter two were not in the mix on Sunday.
"I think it's a pretty big relief, also that we had to wait a long time in this Tour, through the Alps, without a lot of stages for the team," Philipsen said. "Everybody took all the stages we had. Friday we worked super hard with the team, but couldn’t make it to a sprint. It finally paid off, and everybody is dedicated to go for the win."
Alpecin have seemed to also suffer through the lack of form for their captain, leader, legend Mathieu van der Poel, and then the lack of him altogether, after he abandoned. This result will be succour to the Belgian team, which was forced to watch on as their rivals Quick-Step dominated the first two days in Denmark.
"I try to stay easy on the days where there is no chances for us," Philipsen explained. "It was pretty tough last week, because you have to ride as easy as possible for the chances that will appear, eventually. I’m just going to enjoy this first and then put our focus to the last week. The pressure is off, everybody, all the staff.
"It has not been an easy Tour for us, but I think today really showed the strength of the squad."
Having finally got the result he desire, this could be a turning point for Philipsen, no longer the nearly man here.
"Surely it’s the biggest victory in my career yet," the Belgian concluded. "The Tour de France is the highest level race for a sprinter, so I’m super happy to win at the highest level possible. This day I will remember for a long time."
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