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Disaster for Philipsen as the Surprising Girmay Leads Škoda Green Jersey Race

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

This Tour de France has so far been a disaster for defending Škoda Green Jersey winner Jasper Philipsen. The trouble began for the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider on Monday’s stage 3, the race’s first stage for sprinters.

First, his primary lead-out rider, Mathieu van der Poel, widely regarded as the best lead-out on the road, suffered not one, but two punctures, the first with 6km left to race. That alone was sufficient to keep him from joining his sprinter in the peloton, which was riding at a rapid clip in preparation for the sprint. But not long afterwards, van der Poel’s other tire went flat.

“Mathieu hasn’t had a single flat tire all year, and now he gets flats both front and rear,” team manager Christoph Roodhooft complained to the media after the race, adding: “Ultimately, we should be happy that none of our riders have any serious physical issues.”

That was an appropriate observation as Philipsen crashed as his remaining lead-out riders were preparing to put him into position for the sprint before the final two corners of the race. “The damage is not too bad considering the circumstances. I think I hit the ground at least 60kph, but luckily it was a good road,” Philipsen was quoted as saying by Het Nieuwsblad. The stage was won by Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty), who registered the first ever Tour stage victory by a Black African rider.

But worse was to come for Philipsen in stage 5, where he came second in another iconic victory, Mark Cavendish’s record-breaking 35th Tour stage win, a record he had shared with the great Eddy Merckx. Philipsen looked to have badly mistimed his sprint and was beaten by a good bike length by the 39-year-old cycling legend.

But, believe it or not, even worse was to come. In the bunch sprint on Thursday’s stage 6, the 26-year-old Belgian clearly deviated from his line and blocked the path of countryman Wout van Aert (Visma – Lease a Bike), who looked to have a clear path along the barrier. Van Aert sat up as Philipsen continued toward the line, and finished second to Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco AlUla). The race commissaires wasted no time relegating Philipsen to last place for an “iregular sprint.”

Girmay was then placed second and Fernando Gaviria (Movistar) was third. As a result, the surprising Girmay currently heads the Škoda Green Jersey standings with 149 points, ahead of Mads Pedersen (Lidl-Trek) at 111 and Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X Mobility), who is not a sprinter, in third with 87. The perplexing Philipsen lies fourth with 85 points.

With up to five stages designed for sprinters still to run, Philipsen still has a chance of defending his title, as he trails Girmay by 64 points. But Roodhooft is not optimistic. “For the green [jersey] we came on schedule, but now it’s no longer in our hands,” he said. “It has to fall apart everywhere now. It’s not up to him anymore.”

Given his misfortune and misbehavior so far in the race, Philipsen seems to be reverting to the days when he was nicknamed “Jasper the Disaster” and made a habit of snatching disaster out of the jaws of victory. As van Aert put it after the stage 6 incident, “I was once again boxed in by Jasper Philipsen in the sprint, everyone saw that. That is a bad habit of his.”

The Belgian superstar, who won the Škoda Green Jersey in 2022, went on to say, “It wasn’t necessarily super-dangerous, because I was just able to brake in time. But I sprinted up to his level, and I don’t understand why he then swerved towards the barriers. That is not a professional way to ‘close the door’. He must have sensed that I was next to him. But he did this last year in the Tour and now he is doing it again.”

If van Aert decides to try to win a few stages via the sprint, that would seriously complicate Philipsen’s quest for a second points classification title. Another obstacle is the good form of Mads Pedersen, who lies 38 points behind Girmay and 26 ahead of Philipsen.

While the 28-year-old Dane is not the fastest sprinter on the road, he is certainly fast enough to hold his own with the best. And he is the best climber of all the sprinters and capable of winning a hilly stage, so he looks to have at least an even chance for the title. But he crashed heavily in the final 50m of stage 5, landing on his back and shoulder and looked far from his best in stage 6, finishing 15th.

Girmay has so far looked fairly strong in the mountains and has lost less time than many other sprinters, including Philipsen. But the mountain stages to come are very challenging, and the race for the Škoda Green Jersey may be decided by who among the sprinters makes it over the mountains. Until then, the 24-year-old Eritrean looks to be the favorite and must be inspired by the knowledge that he has an entire continent cheering him on.