It wasn’t just that the 25-year-old Belgian was the strongest sprinter in the race, though he clearly was; he also had one of the best cyclists in the world, Mathieu van der Poel, as his leadout man. The job of a leadout man is difficult but simple: guide your sprinter into the best possible position at the front of the bunch and ride faster than the other leadout riders. “No other leadout man can keep up with him,” Philipsen said admiringly of his teammate.
But there were other reasons for Philipsen’s dominance. Perhaps it was the unconventional route of this Tour, which began with two stages of a lot of climbing and may have left other sprinters with prematurely tired legs. Philipsen had no problems with the many climbs that featured in this year’s Tour, which gave him an advantage. And then his primary Škoda Green Jersey rival, Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal–Quick-Step), crashed near the finish of stage 4 and finally abandoned the race before the start of stage 12 because he was riding in almost constant pain.
That crash was one of several incidents in the race that dogged Philipsen throughout the race. Though he said that the crash was no one’s fault, Jakobsen’s leadout man Danny van Poppel accused Philipsen of having caused it inadvertently. “They were pushing each other a little bit. Fabio fell,” he said. “[Jasper] doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Before that incident, a race jury had looked into the stage 3 sprint, in which Philipsen appeared to cut off Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert, but absolved him of impropriety. Then, after stage 7, Astana Qazaqstan and Intermarché-Circus-Wanty, the teams of Mark Cavendish and Biniam Girmay, filed protests after Philipsen again appeared to deviate from his sprint line and moved across Cavendish’s wheel and seemed to force Girmay to slow down to avoid crashing. Again, he was cleared by the race jury.
Finally, Philipsen was condemned by Eurosport commentators for his actions on stage 18 when he rode ahead of the peloton to physically block a move by Pascal Eenkhoorn (Lotto-Dstny) to join a three-man breakaway, the idea apparently being that four men would have a better chance to beat the peloton to the finish line than three, and Philipsen wanted another sprint win.
Again, the Tour took no action and Philipsen said he had done nothing wrong. “I didn’t use an elbow or anything. I just accelerated and got in front of him, so I don’t think I really did a wrong manoeuvre or did anything inappropriate,” he told Wielerflits. “I think I just wanted to make it clear that we wanted to sprint and that we were fine with those three at the front.” Ironically, and much to Philipsen’s dismay, the three riders managed to keep the peloton at bay, as Alpecin-Deceuninck and the other teams with sprinters badly mistimed their pursuit, allowing Kasper Asgreen (Soudal – Quick-Step) to take a famous and most unexpected victory.
Finally, it was a Tour de France in which bunch sprints were hard to come by, as breakaways in stages 18 and 19 beat the bunch to the finish line. In fact, there was only one more sprint after stage 11 and that was what might be called the “queen sprint” on the Champs-Élysées. Here again, the Škoda Green Jersey winner was frustrated and the 2023 Tour provided yet another dramatic twist as the little-known Belgian sprinter Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) won his first-ever UCI World Tour race by nipping Philipsen in another photo finish. In the end, Philipsen won the Škoda Green Jersey easily, though there will certainly be a bitter taste in his mouth.
There was disappointment for Cavendish who was supposedly riding in his final Tour and was looking to pass cycling legend Eddy Merckx with one more stage win to become the sole record holder with 35 Tour stage wins. But he crashed and broke his collarbone on stage 8 and had to drop out of the race. However, Astana has offered the 38-year-old Cavendish a one-year contract for 2024, to enable him to return to the Tour and attempt to win that record stage again. There has so far been no word if he has accepted the offer.
Finally, this was the last Tour de France for Peter Sagan who holds the record with seven Škoda Green Jersey victories. “I’m so glad this is the last one,” Sagan told Eurosport after the final stage in Paris. “I’m tired. I had a good time in road racing and in the Tour de France, which is the greatest race in the world – but I’ve had enough.”