Anyone dreaming of being a leadout man in the Tour de France when they grow up will get the equivalent of a college education in that skill from watching this clip. A leadout man must be smart, to understand the race situation and start the final run at just the right time, and of course they must be fast, fast enough to keep other leadout men and their sprinters behind them. Van der Poel ticks all these boxes and, to all his many other accomplishments in cycling, has now added the title of best leadout rider in the world. As Philipsen told Eurosport after stage 3, “It was a great leadout today. And I was able to keep it to the finish. No other leadout man can keep up with him.”
The pair repeated their two-man act in stage 4, but this time they had to find each other in the chaotic final 250m, with van der Poel slaloming past riders to take up his place at the head of the sprint and again lead his teammate to victory. Of course, Philipsen was delighted and again full of praise for his leadout man.
“It’s a privilege to have Mathieu as the last man,” Philipsen said. “I didn’t know he still had this in the tank, but then he delivered me with 150m to go.” Van der Poel was equally content: “The fact that Jasper wins makes it twice as beautiful. It’s nice to see him finish it again.”
Not that both victories were without controversy. In the final meters of stage 3, Philipsen appeared to cut off Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert, who was coming up fast on his right. The final decision to give him the victory was made by a race jury, who decided, correctly, that Philipsen had kept his racing line and that it was the line of barriers on the right that changed direction and squeezed van Aert, nearly causing a crash. That prompted Philipsen’s main rival for the Škoda Green Jersey, Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal–Quick-Step), to gripe, “I don’t think it’s the nicest victory of [Philipsen’s] career,” and to complain about the sinuous layout of the sprint course.
“After the finish, the first thing Van Aert told me was that he was happy to stay upright. I can understand him. He lost a chance to win,” Jakobsen said. “I think we (riders) and the Tour organizers need to look at the parcours and a finish like this. We all saw in the past what that can do, when a rider goes from one side to the other… We can have long kilometers for finishes, just don’t use a downhill, don’t use a left-right in the last 500 meters.”
Jakobsen knows all too well the hazards of a tricky sprint. He suffered life-threatening injuries in a crash during a bunch sprint in the 2020 Tour of Poland and only recently returned to full fitness.
🤩 Who said the Tour was over? Stunned yesterday, @TamauPogi answered in the best possible way today!
— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) July 6, 2023
After stage 4, van der Poel was relegated for brushing the shoulder of Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Circus–Wanty) as he made his way to the front of the peleton. Most commentators thought the sanction was unwarranted and that it had been levied because of the many crashes that marred the final kilometer of the stage,which was run on a care racetrack. “Carnage it was,” Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan) said.
The two victories delighted Alpecin-Deceuninck team manager Christoph Roodhooft, who declared, “Mathieu van der Poel and Jasper Philipsen are probably the best sprint combo in the world right now.” It will be hard to argue with that, at least until Philipsen’s Tour de France winning streak is halted. After having won the final two sprints of the 2022 Tour de France, the 25-year-old Belgian now has won the last four Tour bunch sprints in succession. But he is looking at the bigger picture. “It’s looking good for green,” Philipsen said. “But the Tour is long.”
Indeed. Anything can happen. Just ask Jakobsen. He finished fifth in stage 3, after failing to find a direct route to the front, and then crashed about 400m from the finish of stage 4, leaving him battered and bruised, but well enough to battle on. However, his Soudal–Quick-Step leadout man Danny van Poppel suggested Philipsen caused the crash.
“I don’t know what he did. I was behind the fight between Fabio and Jasper. They were pushing each other a little bit. Fabio fell,” he said, adding: “[Jasper] doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’m not saying he did that on purpose, because it’s part of sprinting. I’m not saying it was his fault, because it’s also the risk of the profession.”
All this sounds like the makings of a bitter rivalry. And with most of the Tour still to come, including potentially six more bunch sprint finishes, there could be fireworks ahead.
But this is far from a two-rider competition. The big surprise of the first two sprints finishes was the Australian Caleb Ewan (Lotto Dstny), who has already won five Tour stages, but has not recorded a major win since 2021. He certainly came close in stage 4, falling a whisper short of nipping Philipsen at the line.
And what about Cavendish, who is riding in his final Tour and is desperate for one more sprint victory, to take the number of his Tour stage wins to 35, one more than the great Eddy Merckx? Surely, the greatest sprinter of all time has one more winning burst in his 38-year-old legs.
But whatever happens, one thing is sure. Philipsen can no longer be called Jasper Disaster. Thanks in part to van der Poel, you can now call him Jasper the Faster.
1. Jasper Philipsen (BEL) — 150
2. Bryan Coquard (FRA) — 104
3. Wout van Aert (BEL) — 92
4. Victor Lafay (FRA) — 80
5. Mads Pedersen (DEN) — 76