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Why Alpecin-Fenix decided to wait for a sprint instead of chase at Gent-Wevelgem

Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen were both in the chase group, but the team didn't harness its horsepower to close gap to winning quartet.

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Alpecin-Fenix added two top sprinters to their roster for Gent-Wevelgem, hoping one of them would survive the scrimmages on the “plug streets” and triple cobbled Kemmelberg climb and sprint for victory.

In the end both Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen featured in the favorites’ group together with teammate Gianni Vermeersch.

Four riders managed to sneak away to race for the flowers. Behind them, Vermeersch worked hard to reduce their lead but received little support from other teams. Eventually Merlier racked up the group sprint for place sixth while Philipsen sat up.

One might wonder what would’ve happened if Merlier or Philipsen would’ve ridden in support instead of hedging bets between the two sprinters.

Both were ideal candidates for victory in a reduced bunch sprint. Philipsen won two stages at the UAE Tour in February. Merlier won a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico, in Brugge-De Panne and Nokere Koerse. The team ended up hedging its bets in Gent-Wevelgem, and came up empty.

Both riders showed up with sad faces at the mixed zone in Wevelgem.

Philipsen said he didn’t ride in support because that “wasn’t part of the plan.”

“That wasn’t the plan. Both Tim and I were allowed to ride our own sprint. It’s a missed chance for our team, that’s obvious. Personally I expected Groupama-FDJ to do more in the pursuit. We only had Gianni to chase but it was impossible on his own. It’s a pity the group stayed ahead because I felt good. I was where I had to be in the final Kemmelberg passage. In the sprint it was hectic,” Philipsen said.

Merlier repeated that story.

“It’s not a fun situation. We’re just sticking to the plan. Gianni did everything he could. The four men up front were no small guys. They rode hard and cooperated well together. There was support from other teams but maybe not enough. It’s a missed opportunity. I don’t think I’ll get ten more chances like this. We’ve got to keep hoping it will happen one day,” Merlier said in the mixed zone in Wevelgem.

Gianni Vermeersch didn’t understand why the other teams didn’t chase.

“There were four teams in the front group but only three teams were chasing. It’s a pity,” Vermeersch said.

Merlier seemed to hint that sacrificing your own chances without the guarantee for success made it impossible to turn to plan B.

“If the race unfolded this way the plan was for both of us to sprint,” Merlier said. “That wasn’t an unlogical choice because if it would come back together and I would finish second or Jasper third then the other one would be disappointed.”

Ten kilometers after the final Kemmelberg ascent, Merlier worked his way back to the favorites group. Just before his group bridged back up the four riders who would sprint for the victory attacked in front. Merlier explained that he suffered a lot to stay in contention at the steep cobbled Kemmelberg climb.

“I narrowly survived the cut but on every passage at the Kemmelberg I struggled to go to the limit. On the other climbs I managed to stand on the pedals but I wasn’t satisfied with the passages over the Kemmel. Not hitting the red zone on the Kemmel probably helped me to save energy and be good in the finale but in other situations that might have ruined my race. That’s something to work on in the future,” Merlier said.

Philipsen races again on Wednesday in Dwars door Vlaanderen and later also the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix. Merlier will only race again the Scheldeprijs which means he skips Dwars door Vlaanderen even though he finished third last year.

When asked if he regretted not being at the start in Dwars door Vlaanderen, Merlier hinted that it was clearly not his call to skip the race.

“Obviously, but I assume there will be some strategy behind that decision,” he said.

Tune in on April 6 to find out how Alpecin-Fenix will play its sprinter cards in the Scheldeprijs.