Jasper Philipsen looked like he was going to the principal’s office.
The dominant sprinter of the 2023 Tour de France had just barely missed out on a fifth stage win as the breakaway held off the chase on stage 18. He’d still added to his already-insurmountable lead in the points competition, but the Alpecin-Deceuninck leader looked uneasy at the finish.
And with good reason. Earlier in the race, Philipsen attempted to shut down an effort by Lotto Dstny’s Pascal Eenkhoorn to bridge to the breakaway and teammate Victor Campanaerts. Philipsen leapt out of the pack, shadowing Eenkhoorn and then riding alongside him aggressively and having what politicians would call a “frank exchange of views.” Eenkhoorn succeeded with a second breakaway attempt, and would eventually just lose the sprint to Kasper Asgreen, with Philipsen in fourth.
So what went on with all that? “It was three guys in front, we thought it would be nice if we could get 4, 5, 6, 7 guys,” said Eenkhoorn of his motivation for bridging. “I jumped full gas and I think [Philipsen] was a bit annoyed and he said to me, ‘why aren’t [Lotto] pulling?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if I want to race I can race; if you want to pull you can pull.”
From Philipsen’s point of view, he saw a dangerous move that the pack had worked to keep at a minute. “I didn’t want any other guys in the breakaway because it was three strong riders already,” he said at the finish. “I wanted to go for a sprint so that’s why I countered the move.” But it wasn’t that he’d covered, it was how, acting as if Eenkhoorn was wrong to try to bridge and verging on physically impeding the Dutchman from doing so.
Philipsen’s actions immediately lit up social media, with the official Tour Twitter channel noting he was “policing the peloton” but conveniently eliding the context of how, exactly, Philipsen did so. Others called for fines, penalties, even disqualification, and that’s what had Philipsen so concerned at the finish, even as he claimed he’d done nothing wrong.
Ultimately, the race jury let it pass. But there’s an open question about how much argy-bargy should be left to the riders, and when a correction is in order. Recall that Alpecin was criticized earlier in the race for its aggressive riding, with Monument winner turned leadout man Mathieu van der Poel fined and relegated on stage 4 for bumping Intermarché-Circus-Wanty’s Biniam Girmay in the finale.
This is, in some ways, just how Alpecin races. They like to boss things around, and Van der Poel in particular is not shy about getting physical. At Paris-Roubaix, he was widely criticized for bumping former winner John Degenkolb, who crashed as a result. And earlier in the race, he basically rode UAE Team Emirates’ Pascal Ackermann into the grass for no apparent reason.
It works, so in that respect, the approach is hard to argue with. But teams at the Tour may be getting tired of the act. Multiple teams, including Lidl-Trek and Jayco-AlUla, put guys on the front to keep the gap to the breakaway close. But late in the race, when the catch looked close, help for Alpecin was lacking. As Lidl-Trek’s Mattias Skjelmose put it, “with Philipsen being so superior to everybody else in the sprint, teams are really careful with helping because they know the only chance they have is to have more guys in the final, and I think everybody played this game.”
That game will likely repeat on stage 19, and certainly on stage 21 in Paris. A good chunk of the sprinters – Fabio Jakobsen, Phil Bauhaus, Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan, and now Wout van Aert – have gone home. Meanwhile, half the teams in the race have yet to notch a stage win and will be looking mostly for breakaway opportunities. And help pulling them back may be hard for Alpecin to find.
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