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Young Belgian draws comparisons to Tom Boonen

Jasper Philipsen, 20, is thought to be an immense talent who could soon be the face of Belgian classics riders.

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Ultra-talented teenager Remco Evenepoel might be getting all the hype, but many insiders believe Jasper Philipsen will be Belgium’s next breakout star.

Two-time world junior champion Evenepoel, who turned a spritely 19 last month in his professional debut with Deceuninck-Quick-Step, has been hogging the headlines, especially following his pro debut in Tour de San Juan where he won the best young rider’s prize and finished third in his first pro TT.

Yet Philipsen (UAE-Team Emirates), hardly his elder at 20, has already scored a WorldTour stage victory — albeit a controversial one with a relegation involving Caleb Ewan at the Santos Tour Down Under. That victory served as quick confirmation that the multi-faceted Flanderen is already on the fast-track for big things in his rookie season.

“It was an important victory for me, my first WorldTour race, but it arrived in a strange way. I couldn’t have that feeling of crossing the line first,” Philipsen said in Australia. “At the same time, success is always beautiful and I’m happy to have it.”

If Evenepoel is already being hyped as a potential grand tour winner — no one compares anyone to Eddy Merckx anymore — the inevitable comparisons between Philipsen and Tom Boonen have already picked up steam.

Philipsen hails from the same area as Boonen, and grew up with a poster of “Tomeke” on his wall while harboring dreams of racing the big Belgian classics someday. As an up-and-coming junior, Philipsen would sometimes tag along on Boonen’s training group on the roads in northern Flanders.

With cycling-crazed Belgium looking for its next big classics star, all eyes are turning toward Philipsen.

“He is a potential Tom Boonen,” said veteran journalist Hugo Coorevits of Het Nieuwsblad. “The way he sprints, his skills for the Flemish races, his mindset, the way he talks, and the manner he went on his own way to UAE.”

If Philipsen has a big spring — he’ll race a full Belgian classics calendar over the next few weeks — expect the Boonen comparisons to flow like Leffe beer on a Saturday night.

This week, Philipsen returns to action at the Volta ao Algarve in southern Portugal (February 20-24) with teammate Fabio Aru as the headliner ahead of what will be a busy and highly anticipated spring.

Last week, Philipsen took advantage of some good weather to take a closer look at some of the routes in Flanders that he will tackle for the first time this spring as an elite pro. He’s not shy about his ambitions.

“I’m really looking forward to standing on the top step of the spring classics in the coming years,” Philipsen told Sporza. “These races are all new to me. I don’t expect too much this year. This will be a learning season for me.”

Philipsen was a top recruit for UAE-Team Emirates, which also signed Juan Molano and Tour de l’Avenir winner Tadej Pogacar as part of its superstar freshman class. Sport director Joxean Matxin Fernández has a sharp eye for talent and said he was watching Philipsen last season when he was racing with Hagens Berman Axeon.

That he turned down offers from Belgium’s bigger teams to sign on with UAE proves Philipsen is already capable of making the right moves. At a top Belgian team, he’d have heaps of pressure on his shoulders and he would be in a fight to make the team selection for the bigger classics. At UAE, he can learn and make his paces just a bit off the radar with likely starts in all the major events.

“He was already impressive last year,” Fernández said. “You can see he has the winning instinct. We don’t want to put too much pressure on him his first season, but we can already see he has the attitude of a champion.”

That he’ll be behind the likes of Fernando Gaviria and Alexander Kristoff in the team’s pecking order only helps take pressure off Philipsen.

With his top finishing speed and his deep Belgian roots, many are already promoting Philipsen as Belgium’s next big classics star. Though he’s shown promise in the under-23 ranks, he needs to register a few more results at the pro level to see how far he can go. The pressure will pile on soon enough, with the Belgian opening weekend just a few weeks away.

Philipsen’s arrival comes at a good moment for Belgian cycling. With superstar Boonen already retired, other current Belgian stars such as Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert are winding down their careers. Philipsen joins Wout van Aert, Evenepoel, and Bjorn Lambrecht as promising Belgian talents primed to fill that void.

His victory in Australia only seemed to fuel expectations. Some are already referring to him as the “new Tom Boonen,” surely a curse for any young rider. Philipsen seems to be taking it all in stride.

“I have my feet on the ground,” he said. “If I can show myself somewhere during the classics this year, I would be happy with that. I hope to leave the classics this year taking the confidence that someday I can come back and win.”

Don’t be surprised to see him fighting for the spoils in the lesser Belgian races behind the monuments. Boonen was third in his first ride at Paris-Roubaix in 2002. If Philipsen comes even close to that, everyone in Flanders will have reason to cheer.