Merlier begins 'playing in the sand' Sunday at Coupe de France Cyclo-cross

Tim Merlier of Belgium on the beach section of the 2021 UCI CycloCross World Championships in Oostende
Tim Merlier of Belgium on the beach section of the 2021 UCI CycloCross World Championships in Oostende (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) bridges back to cyclo-cross on Sunday as he will begin a compressed winter off-road campaign at the Coupe de France Cyclo-cross in Troyes, France. According to a report by Wielerfits, he will target races through the second week of January, when he plans to race the Belgian nationals in Middelkerke on a Saturday, followed by Cyclocross Otegem on Sunday. 

The 29-year-old Belgian plans to race X2O Trophee races in Loenhout and Herentals,  Superprestige series races in Diegem, Heusden-Zolder, and a Gullegem C2 race, all events in Belgium. He noted that he would also like to race two World Cups, if selected by the national team.

“Last week I did a real cross training for the first time at the Oudenaarde Donkvijver,” he told Wielerflits. “This winter it will mainly be crosses 'on basic condition'. But playing in the sand, getting used to the bike again, never hurts.

“I would like to start in Rucphen, but for that I have to be selected by our national coach. If that doesn't work, I immediately have a weekend off. Then Loenhout, Diegem, Heusden-Zolder, Gullegem, Herentals, the BC in Middelkerke and Otegem are on my wish list, but there are still a number of contract negotiations underway. In between, Hulst – I also have to be selected there – can be added.”

His Alpecin-Fenix teammate Gianni Vermeersch will join him on the start line at the C2 race. Vermeersch will begin his ‘cross campaign the day before at the Ethias Cross contest in Essen, looking to represent the Belgian National Team at the World Championships for a 10th time. In elite and U23 races at cyclo-cross Worlds, the 29-year-old Vermeersch has finished in the top 10 six times. 

Another Alpecin teammate, cyclo-cross World Champion Mathieu van der Poel, will return to the ‘cross field on December 18 at the World Cup in Rucphen in the Netherlands.

Merlier has been a member of the elite men’s Belgian team for Cyclo-cross World Championships each of the last six years, scoring top 10s twice, last in 2020 in Oostende. He said he did not expect to travel to the US for the Fayetteville edition of Worlds at the end of January, but would turn his focus back to the road after nationals weekend.

“Actually, the same applies to me as to Gianni Vermeersch. I always have a bit of jet lag and I don't want to risk my spring. I'll leave the door ajar if things suddenly go very well,” said Merlier, who included cyclo-cross on his racing calendar for the past 12 years since he was a junior, last season taking part in 10 races.

“It remains an excellent preparation. Experiencing that competitive feeling in the winter is an added bonus. Then you know what you are training for and that motivates you. I continue to find it strange and difficult to train as a road racer for a whole winter without a short-term goal. I need that."

One of the top sprinters on the WorldTour, Merlier grabbed nine wins in 2021, including Grand Tour victories at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. The stage 2 win in Novara at the Giro was the debut Grand Tour stage victory for Alpecin-Fenix, while he went back-to-back on stage wins in the Tour with Van der Poel, the Dutchman taking the yellow jersey on stage 2 while Merlier won stage 3.

“My biggest goals? Trying to match 2021 in number of wins and… in a Grand Tour last longer than ten days,” he told Wielerflits, referring to his abandonment of the Tour on stage 9 due to fatigue. “In the Tour de France I hit my limits. Physically and mentally.’

“Whether there is another Giro-Tour combination in it? This has not yet been discussed within the team. But I think they know what I like to drive. It will also depend on who is conditionally good and when.” 

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