Step right up to ride Mathieu van der Poel’s magic-carpet express

A triple-Monument winner delivering you to the line doesn't make it a sure win, but almost.

Mathieu van der Poel’s leadouts have given Jasper Philipsen a perfect escort to the finish on two successive stages. Photo © Kramon

Joe Lindsey
by Joe Lindsey 04.07.2023 Photography by
Kristof Ramon
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Just four stages in to the 2023 Tour de France, the race already has its first double-stage winner in Alpecin-Deceuninck sprinter Jasper Philipsen. Two stages, especially consecutive ones, is a fine accomplishment – career-making, in fact – in any Tour, much less the lumpy 2023 edition, which seems to switch up the stage format almost day by day, especially in the first week.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of Philipsen’s development into one of the dominant field sprinters in pro cycling. What’s more impressive than even Philipsen’s remarkable emergence is that his rise has come at a team where he wasn’t the sole or sometimes even primary sprinter. In 2021 and 2022, he sometimes sprinted alongside – literally, in stage 3 of the 2021 Tour – teammates like Tim Merlier or superstar Mathieu van der Poel.

But after Merlier’s departure to Soudal Quick-Step, Philipsen has been the team’s designated closer on flat stages. And following Van der Poel’s muted 2022 Tour, which he departed just halfway through, the Dutch phenom has bounced back physically and emotionally. He’s the cornerstone of Philipsen’s success this year, and seems to be enjoying himself thoroughly. Twice in two days now, Van der Poel has provided a virtuoso leadout to Philipsen, delivering him a red-carpet, VIP ride to the finish line. 

“I think we have the best possible combination in cycling,” said team director Christoph Roodhooft at the finish, noting that Van der Poel again brought Philipsen through the scrum in perfect fashion. “When you have a leadout like Mathieu and you have the legs and the speed that he’s having, then I don’t say it’s easy, but you have a big chance to take the victory.”

Pretty much, Christoph. The sight of a triple-Monument winner leading out a teammate reminds me of a (very old) Nike hockey ad where Cam Neely describes his workout – which includes getting pounded in front of the net by NHL Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque – by saying, “If you don’t have a Ray Bourque, just use whatever you have around the house.”

Similarly, other teams would dream of having a leadout like MvdP. A great leadout possesses several overlapping talents: ferocious one-minute power, a daredevil mentality and the handling skills to match, and a finely tuned sense of pack dynamics and timing. Van der Poel possesses all that, and at levels that make him one of the finest riders in the world.

He seems to genuinely enjoy the role; twice at Tirreno-Adriatico this year, he delivered Philipsen to stage wins, and suggested that doing so helps him in targeting his own objectives.

On stage 3, the final few kilometers had devolved into a chaotic boil of riders and teams trying to control. Soudal Quick-Step appeared to have it until Kasper Asgreen’s surge actually broke him clear of the line of riders and disrupted the team’s organization. Meanwhile, Adrien Petit made a desperate, mad move to bring Biniam Girmay to the front for Intermarché-Circus-Wanty and then blew up like a Fourth of July firework. In the briefest of pauses that followed, Van der Poel hit the front with a massive power surge, stringing out the group at 500 meters to go and giving Philipsen a clean line for the win.

On stage 4, successive crashes threatened to disrupt the rhythm of the leadout and with under 500 meters to go, Philipsen was just slightly too far back, stuck in traffic. Again, Van der Poel’s power, sense of timing, confidence, and handling skills made the difference as he confidently shouldered Girmay aside (for which he was later fined) and accelerated up the left side of the group, Philipsen just barely squirming through the gap before it closed. Van der Poel powered almost clear of the field before swinging off to give Philipsen a perfect 100 or so meters to the line, just enough to hold off Caleb Ewan.

Ewan’s own second place was notable given how crashes have decimated his own train, with Jasper De Buyst fighting a wrist injury and Jacopo Guarnieri out after today with a broken collarbone. While crediting his team for doing a “perfect job” of protecting him from almost 60 km out, Ewan noted those challenges have forced him to adapt tactics and follow wheels. “I don’t have a guy to follow and take me to 150 to go,” he said. In other words, Ewan’s using whatever he has around the team bus.

By contrast, Ewan observed, “Philipsen has one of the best riders in the world as a leadout; not just the best leadout rider, but in general, one of the best riders in the world.” 

Teamwork, dreamwork, yada yada yada. But Van der Poel, celebrating here with Sylvain Dillier, seems as happy contributing to teammates’ successes as his own. Photo © Kramon

For his part, Van der Poel seems relaxed and happy, exulting in team success even if he’s not the one crossing the line first. “Van der Poel did an amazing leadout. He’s super motivated also; he gives 100 percent,” said teammate Ramon Sinkeldam of Van der Poel’s mental state. “If you have Van der Poel in front of you that’s a [perfect] combination for Jasper.”

Philipsen will likely get at least one more chance in the coming days, with the stage 7 finish in Bordeaux. But the roles may reverse as well; stage 8, to Limoges, features a flat run-in, a few tricky corners, and a slightly uphill kick in the last kilometer: perfect Van der Poel territory, especially for a team that’s racing loose and confident with the tailwind of two stages already. But if Van der Poel targets the stage, he might get a leadout of his own.

Sinkeldam noted that Philipsen’s improvement hasn’t only been in his specialty. “He’s really outstanding this year, not only in the sprints but his climbing has improved,” Sinkeldam observed. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Philipsen use his massive power to spring Van der Poel free. The best combination in pro cycling is going to be hard to stop.

Jonny Long and Iain Treloar contributed reporting from the Tour de France.

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