This interview originally appeared in the 4 January issue of Cycling Weekly magazine.
It seemed fitting that Jasper Philipsen eventually swapped his blue team issue kit for the green jersey of the Tour de France last summer once his hulk-like sprinting left him with the unofficial title of the fastest man in the world.
A trend rapidly developed in the opening week of the Tour and showed no sign of relenting as the race continued. The peloton surged into the final kilometre of stage three in the streets of Bayonne, with Alpecin leading the charge, before Philipsen - complete with an angry grimace - burst from Mathieu van der Poel’s wheel to punch his way to his first win of the race.
Questions were once asked as to whether Peter Sagan was in fact Bruce Banner in disguise, although Philipsen’s form in 2023 soon revealed the incredible hulk of cycling’s true identity.
Philipsen chalked up 19 individual victories last season - including his results at the Tour - which further underlined his claim to the fastest man throne. The 25-year-old was simply a cut above the rest and says he is aiming to replicate his form this year with the Paris Olympics on the horizon.
Speaking exclusively to Cycling Weekly, Philipsen says lining up at the Olympics isn’t the be all and end all, which is just as well because given Belgium’s star-studded road race squad, he might not even make the start-line.
“I hope to be there, of course,” he says. “It's still a really long time away but I hope to be able to get to Paris and compete.”
“There are an awful lot of good riders available,” he adds. “I just need to keep delivering like I have done, deliver results and show that I'm one of the strongest on this type of terrain that they have for the road race in Paris. That’s all I can do.”
The character of top sprinters is that they’re loud, brash and shouting from the rooftops about their own brilliance. However, five minutes with the unassuming Philipsen reveals that he is the complete opposite - he regularly plays down his own success and steers away from superlatives.
But when Paris-Roubaix comes up, Philipsen smiles and begins to talk himself up for the first time. His second place in the hallowed concrete velodrome, behind team-mate Mathieu van der Poel was notable because he beat far more seasoned Classics riders to a place on the podium. Cycling Weekly asks him if he can go one step further this year, “why not?” is the answer he gives in response.
“We will have to see,” Philipsen says. “I know we will make some plans as a group in January but I think with how I've evolved as a rider it would be a good decision to look at the Classics.
“Of course, the Tour de France again is a big goal, but hopefully I can fit some big Classics in as well, because I just love racing in them, it's a real passion of mine.”
Dreaming of Roubaix
“I think at the moment for me, a race like Flanders is too hard because it's too hilly but maybe in a few years I think I can compete there,” he adds. “I think the Classic that I'm most likely to win is probably Roubaix. I already showed that the race suits me… For sure, it's not impossible for me to go back and win there.”
Philipsen grew up in Mol, in Belgium’s east Flanders, the same province of Antwerp from which Tom Boonen emerged.
Similarly to Boonen, and every other professional cyclist from the area, bike racing was thrust upon Philipsen from an early age. “It's just part of the culture, you grow up with it,” says Philipsen. “You watch it on TV all the time when you're young, so you want to be the same as the guys you see.
“I actually did soccer first, but then switched to cycling, and I enjoyed it a lot more. I've just always liked physical sports. I always had more physical talent than technical talent. In soccer you need a bit more technical skill but I was just better at the physical stuff.”
Philipsen’s prowess with the physical side of his sport eventually carried him to Axel Merckx’s renowned development team Hagens Berman Axeon.
A year later UAE Team Emirates came calling, where he suited up alongside a future Tour de France winner.
“I think they're now a bigger deal than they were back then,” Philipsen says of his former team. “Of course, being in a major WorldTour team also brings pressure as a young guy. I had no patience to wait to be the best cyclist that I could be, I was always impatient for that. I wanted to be where I am now already from the start, but it's not that easy. So I think the pressure was what I put on myself back then.
“There was stress and impatience from myself to become the cyclist that I wanted to be.”
“So that was the biggest reason why I left UAE,” he adds. “They were clearly going to be a GC team with [Tadej] Pogačar. Tadej developed and had a bigger growth and improvement than me at the start.
“He was immediately there, racing at the highest level. I was there at a good level but not the highest. With my personal ambition, it was better to move onto Alpecin-Deceuninck.
“They focus more on the sprint's and Classics, and that's something I've always suited. Of course, there's Mathieu van der Poel on the team too, but the team cannot rely on one guy. I'm happy to be on a team with him, I think we compliment each other well.”
Life at Alpecin-Deceuninck
Philipsen soon reaped the rewards of making the jump. In 2021, at Alpecin, the Belgian won nine including two stages of the Vuelta a Espana. From there he has made steady progress each year, winning two stages at the Tour de France in 2022 before returning to dominate sprints and win four in 2023, on his way to the Tour’s green jersey and 19 race wins across the year.
Reflecting on his year of supremacy within the frenetic world of sprinting, Philipsen tells Cycling Weekly that paying attention to the psychological side of performance was what kept him at the top.
“I think it's clear and we can say that it was my best year yet,” he says. “Staying mentally fresh was the key I think. At the start of the year we said that it was important that I maintained enjoyment with what I did throughout the year, and had fun during the season. Of course, you have highs and lows but that's inevitable.
“It was also avoiding doing things in races and training that burn you out completely so that you can't keep that consistency and collapse after two or three races. That was something we tried to avoid and helped me to stay mentally fresh.”
That showed in the spring when, as well as achieving second place at Roubaix, Philipsen took two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and won Scheldeprijs for a second time which proved the form was there as the Tour drew near.
“I think already because of the way I started the season I could go into it with a lot of confidence,” he says. “Myself and Mathieu had a good, strong team around us so we could have some fun on the sprint stages and make ourselves hard to beat with the lead out that I had.
“I think that's something that we will inevitably try to work on even more and take back next year so that we can deliver as a team again.”
Tour de France domination
Looking back on the Tour, the 25-year-old highlights one stage win in particular as being symbolic and says it defined his rapidly growing identity as a racer.
“I think my fourth stage was the nicest to win, the last one,” he says. “That's because there was a lot of pressure and commentary from outside of the team. A lot of people were saying he can't do it without Mathieu [van der Poel] or he can't stay on his own line or whatever.
“I think that win erased that completely. I proved and showed everybody talking that it was wrong, and without Mathieu it was possible to win and it was also possible to win without being accused of doing an irregular sprint.
“I always knew it was possible to do these things and that I had the power and strength to do it. And also to do it in a fair way of course. So that was fun.”
Nevertheless, despite Philipsen’s dominance on the flatter stages, a second stage win on the Champs-Élysées in Paris slipped through his fingers as Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) bested him to become a surprise winner. Philipsen admits that missing out on another win on the final day in the French capital hurt but explains that the intense three weeks of racing had started to take its toll.
“It helped that I had won there before,” he says. “Maybe looking back at the last day in Paris, I was not physically so fresh anymore and could not hit my best effort in that finale.”
“At the end of the Tour I was mentally, or physically, not at my top level anymore,” he explains. “Always being there, fighting for the green jersey is harder than people think. Even if I had a good advantage, you're still always being kept busy with the jersey, and you're still thinking about it every day.”
He adds: “I also thought that two weeks after, I had the World Championships in Scotland and wanted to save some of my best legs for then.”
With the green jersey in the bag, Philipsen’s hot streak continued post-Tour and his season ended with four stage wins at the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey.
When we label him the ‘fastest man in the world’ heading into 2024 he demures. “This year is a new year again and there's also new, younger guys coming through. Also the older, more experienced ones that have been up there over the years are also still there at the top level and trying to win as much as possible.
“I know we have a good team and we have a good mindset to try to repeat this as a group. But of course, this sport doesn't give you any guarantees.
“So it's nice being the man to beat, but in 2024 but if you don't deliver any more then there is somebody else. So you try to stay on top, but it's the hardest thing to do.”
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