Ten years to the day since Wouter Weylandt died at the Giro d'Italia, Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) could hardly have made it clearer that his breakthrough Giro d'Italia stage win was his own special way of paying tribute to his fellow Belgian.
As he crossed the line first in Novara, Merlier held up his fingers in the shape of a W, honouring Weylandt's memory and simultaneously celebrating his own first victory in what is his debut Grand Tour.
Merlier had calculated his final dash for the line perfectly, ambushing the other sprinters by going from far out when it was still impossible to see the finish line, he said afterwards.
He also revealed that while he had not known Weylandt personally, they had formed part of the same informal training group in east Flanders known as the Scheldepeloton, the nickname for the riders that meet up to ride along the banks of the River Schelde.
"I am just happy I could do this for him," he said after the stage.
Merlier said the sprint itself had been very hectic, but that being guided into the an ideal spot to launch his final attack by his team had been critical to his success.
"Alex Krieger had brought me into a good position, and I went from 250 metres. My sports director had said on the race radio that you could only actually see the finish line in the last 100 metres" – because of a slightly curving finish – "so I decided to go from far out to surprise the other guys a bit."
While Mathieu van der Poel has been dominating the media's attention regarding Alpecin-Fenix, Merlier has managed to go on racking up the wins on his own account, one of which, at Le Samyn, he took after Van der Poel's handlebars broke late on.
"He's a real team player and I know he's very proud I can win here today," Merlier said, as he celebrated his fourth triumph of 2021, and first since he took the Bredene Koksijde Classic back in mid-March.
A former Belgian National champion and winner of a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico, Merlier responded politely when told that fellow fastman Elia Viviani (Cofidis), had pre-Giro, singled him out as a key rival in the sprints.
"I didn't know Elia knew me but that's nice to hear," he said. "I've already won some nice sprints, this one is the biggest victory in my career, and I hope to get some more here. But anyway, to win in my first participation of a Grand Tour is already something big."
Merlier's lead-out man, Belgian national champion Dries De Bondt, said after the finish that the team has complete trust in the 28-year-old.
"We were trying to win the stage with Tim, we trusted him completely to do it and I'm very proud," he said.
"It was a very, very fast last five kilometres, but the crucial part was to be in front already and that's why we went so early. I think we had enough guys to keep us there, everybody did his part."
Though Merlier will go into stage 3 wearing the cyclamen jersey of Giro points leader and there are at least another five or six possible options for bunch sprints – one as soon as Monday – Alpecin-Fenix have already fulfilled their own Giro expectations.
"It takes off the pressure for us," De Bondt argued. "Our Giro is already a success now because our goal coming here was taking a stage, so everything that comes from now on will be a bonus."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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