One day after Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere suggested that his team would be able to isolate and defeat the likes of Mathieu van der Poel and his rider Florian Sénéchal suggested that the Dutch champion is Alpecin-Fenix's only option, the team responded in the most powerful way possible. Alpecin-Fenix beat the WorldTour team at their own game, with Tim Merlier savouring the victory in Tuesday's Le Samyn.
Not only did the ProTeam take the victory, they shut down a full-on effort by Deceuninck-QuickStep to deliver Sénéchal and Mark Cavendish to the finish.
"We had to win here," Merlier said in an article on Wielerflits.nl. "We had put that pressure on ourselves."
In the pre-race press conference, Lefevere and Sénéchal highlighted the depth of the Deceuninck-QuickStep team as an advantage in defeating Van der Poel "because we have more cards to play," but Merlier said, "we responded with the pedals."
"With Matje [Mathieu] there we always have an advantage. For the doubters, it is now clear that he can also bury himself for a teammate. Okay, normally he would go for the win, but after his handlebars broke, it was immediately decided to play my card."
Van der Poel's bars broke below where the right shift lever attached, leaving him with only one brake and no way to shift his rear derailleur, but the Dutchman still managed to put in a strong lead out for Merlier in the final kilometres.
"At first they considered having Mathieu change bikes, but he thought it was too late," Merlier said of the decision to ride for him. "Jasper [Philipsen] had already used a lot of energy and he also came to tell me he would try to help in the final. He brought me to the front towards the last cobblestone. Then I could count on Mathieu. We really are a close team."
Van der Poel had suggested he would work for Merlier in Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday, after having to leave the UAE Tour while in the race lead after a team staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Merlier said he wasn't bad in the race but had a hard time on the Oude Kwaremont with 60 kilometres to go.
"I literally dove from stone to stone. Then I came through again, but I was held up by a fall. Mads Pedersen was able to jump across but I stranded at thirty meters. If I, together with Jonas Rickaert, had been able to make the connection, it would have been a different story."
Instead, Merlier came home at Kuurne in a group at 1:48 for 38th place. The team were disappointed to not get a result out of the Opening Weekend but stayed motivated.
"This afternoon in the bus we psyched each other up. The motivation to win was huge, and we started here with a strong team. It didn't matter who or how, but we were convinced that we would do everything to go home with the victory."
With that goal under his belt, Merlier said the pressure is off but still has his eye on another stage at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he beat the likes of Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) to take victory on stage 6 last year.
"Of course I would like to win one more, but the most important thing is that someone from Alpecin-Fenix wins."
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