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Tim Merlier relishing Mathieu van der Poel leadout at Giro d’Italia

Belgian rider sets eyes on Gent-Wevelgem after edging out Dylan Groenewegen in photo finish at Brugge-De Panne.

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DE PANNE, Belgium (VN) — Tim Merlier is looking forward to teaming up with Mathieu van der Poel again.

The pair haven’t raced together on the road since Paris-Roubaix last year, but are destined to combine forces later this spring at the classics before supporting each other at the Giro d’Italia in May.

Merlier was already scheduled to ride the Italian grand tour but van der Poel announced it was also on his calendar — in addition to the Tour de France — after making a surprise comeback from injury with third at Milan-San Remo.

After notching up his third win of the season at Brugge-De Panne, Merlier says he’s excited about the prospect of getting van der Poel into his grand tour sprint train, but he might have to tell him to step off the gas a little bit.

“It will for sure be a good leadout but maybe he will end up killing me in the finals. The stage that I won in the Tour, he also did the leadout there but he put me a bit over the limit, so I’m going to have to ask him to do it a bit slower.

“He’s not a normal rider in the peloton. To start and directly take third in Milan-San Remo, you can see that he is a special guy.”

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Merlier’s win over Dylan Groenewegen in De Panne on Wednesday was decided by a photo finish after a tightly contested and messy sprint. Indeed, it was so close that even the two riders couldn’t figure out who was the victor.

“I was a really hectic final. I was already happy to get safely over the finish line and then I crossed the finish line, and I didn’t know that I’d won the race,” Merlier said. “It was the same for Dylan. We asked each other but nobody knew. We were waiting a long time, which is never nice.”

Before Merlier heads to Budapest for the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia in a little over a month, the former Belgian road race champion has a packed spring classics campaign, which will culminate with Paris-Roubaix.

Next up for Merlier will be Gent-Wevelgem this Sunday. It’s a race that he’s ridden just twice before with 27th his best career finish back in 2019. However, with his run of form this March — which has seen him take a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico and Nokere Koerse — he hopes that he can be in the mix for a win this weekend.

“It has already been a good season so far. I have missed a bit the opportunities to win some more races, but everyone wants more and that’s the same for me also and I hope that next week I can still win some nice races,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to Gent-Wevelgem, it’s an important race for the sprinters. Maybe, it’s the only classic that you can win as a sprinter. I hope that I can win it, but we will see on Sunday.”

Groenewegen edged out

While Merlier was left celebrating his second win in a week, Groenewegen had to settle for second place by the slimmest of margins.

The Dutchman, who put Merlier’s winning advantage down to holding his sprint a fraction longer than himself, was pragmatic in defeat.

“Of course, it was hectic but it’s always like this in sprinting and of course on Belgian small roads. We were in a really good position, and it was a really good team effort. In the end, Luka did an amazing effort to put me in a good position, but Tim was a little bit stronger,” Groenewegen said before stepping on the podium for his second place. “I think that he waited a little bit longer and then he could go in the slipstream but that’s sprinting. He timed it really good.

“I never like it when I lose but sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Now we have a nice second place, but if you lose with a small gap, it is always frustrating.”