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Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.
Packed crowds lining the roadside, a far from a straightforward final kilometer, and a frantic and chaotic sprint finish: Ah, I’m so glad that it’s Giro d’Italia time again.
The first sprint stages in grand tours have a tendency to throw up a surprise or two – Ivan Quaranta in Modica, 1999, anyone? – and so it proved once again in Novara on Sunday.
Even after wins in Le Samyn, GP Jean-Pierre Monsére, and Koksijde Classic thus far in 2021, Alpecin-Fenix’s Tim Merlier was an outside bet for today’s stage victory, especially given that he was just one day into his first grand tour start. That he beat Giacomo Nizzolo, Elia Viviani, Peter Sagan, and Dylan Groenewegen — regardless of their grand tour records, recovery from COVID, and racing suspensions — in a straight fight was impressive. The manner of Merlier’s win, following a long-range sprint (something that is fast becoming a very effective weapon for the 28-year-old), made it even more noteworthy.
While the Belgian understandably said he was “really proud” of his victory, I wouldn’t have liked to be a rider on Lotto-Soudal or Team UAE-Emirates last night. Re-watching the finish will not make for happy viewing.
950m to go
Merlier’s position as the peloton flashed past the flamme rouge and dropped under a railway bridge was excellent: He was close enough to the front without being too far up and had lead-out man Alexander Krieger ahead of him in line. The Alpecin-Fenix duo’s net position in the peloton was arguably even better than it looked here, as Ineos placed race leader Filippo Ganna at the head of the line to marshal GC hopeful, Egan Bernal, as close to the finish as possible. They were passed by the ragged lead-out trains shortly after.
Notable by his absence here is Caleb Ewan. One of his Lotto-Soudal teammates is visible towards the front of the peloton in the above picture, but the Australian was in a position from which he’ll never recover. As Merlier’s teammate Dries De Bondt told Eurosport: “It was a very, very fast last five kilometers. The crucial part there was to be in front already because the speed was so high, you couldn’t move up.”
600m to go
Krieger did a brilliant job of leading Merlier through this roundabout with 600 meters remaining. Seconds before, the eventual stage-winner also kept his nerve as Sagan tried to pre-empt the bottleneck effect that would follow it by attempting to move up in line. The pair bumped shoulders, but Merlier wasn’t in the mood to give up his teammate’s wheel.
Two Cofidis riders — Viviani and Simone Consonni — were sandwiched between UAE’s Juan Sebastián Molano and Maximiliano Richeze at the head of the peloton, while the latter team’s leader, Fernando Gaviria, sat just behind Merlier and next to Groenewegen.
On the left of the shot, Ewan can be seen making up ground. However, the right-left nature of the roundabout meant that his Lotto train got squeezed out on exit. The Australian came out of the bend in 16th position; he went on to cross the line in 10th.
300m to go
Consonni started his lead-out proper as he exited the roundabout, some 550 meters from the line, which created a noticeable gap in the peloton. Only 11 other riders found themselves on the right side of the split.
Krieger and Merlier got separated in the post-roundabout cyclone, so the Belgian moved into Richeze’s wheel. Krieger pulled out of the line some 325 meters out from the finish, followed soon after by Richeze, leaving Merlier with a small gap to Viviani. With Nizzolo, Gaviria, and Groenewegen immediately behind him, this is where he started his sprint.
Molano was at the head of the race at this point, completely unaware of the unusual role he was about to play in proceedings.
200m to go
Merlier hit the front with 200 meters of the stage remaining. This was admittedly exacerbated by Molano’s hesitancy: he had no clue where Gaviria was. How badly UAE’s lead-out went is clear from the sight of Richeze on the right side of the above still, looking directly at the action unfolding ahead of him, visibly using his race radio. He was presumably advising Molano that Gaviria was about to come through to his right, however, there was a communication breakdown. Thankfully, the Colombian shaved off some of his speed, but still collided with his team-mate and rebounded into the barriers by the 150m to go marker. Somehow, he stayed upright, avoiding what could have been a nasty crash, especially given that the pronounced bend in the road would have impacted on riders’ visibility behind.
Having looked to be in a great position a few seconds earlier, Viviani’s decision to not go for a long sprint (something that I’d normally commend riders on) cost him here. Merlier, Nizzolo, and Groenewegen all went around him while he was being delayed by Molano. “It was my mistake because, when Molano lost speed, I was suddenly stuck and Tom went past me,” said Viviani.
75m to go
It will be fascinating to see if (a) Merlier continues to go long with his sprints during the remainder of the Giro, and (b) if it changes the dynamic of finishes as a result. The result never looked in doubt as soon as he started his sprint; the photo above shows how far behind his closest challengers were even after he’d had his nose in the wind for over 100 meters.
Nizzolo only made up notable ground on him inside the final 10 meters, by which time the Alpecin-Fenix rider was preparing to celebrate. While the Italian’s wait to win a grand tour stage continues, Merlier will no doubt savor this achievement, one that is made even more impressive coming just two days into his maiden three-week race.