Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) could only smile in resignation after slowing towards a halt in the shadow of the Abbey of Santa Giustina and then congratulating Xandro Meurisse (Alpecin-Fenix), the man who had just beaten him to the Giro del Veneto in the heart of Padova. "To win now, it seems I have to finish alone or else I don't win anymore," Trentin said.
The Italian wasn't the first rider to be out-stripped in a sprint by an Alpecin-Fenix rider this season, but at least he will be the last. The Giro del Veneto, revived by Filippo Pozzato after a nine-year hiatus, was the final race on Alpecin-Fenix's programme in a remarkable 2021 that has seen the ProTeam stack up some 33 victories, including stage wins in all three Grand Tours.
"My season is finished, tomorrow I go home," Meurisse grinned when he took a seat in the press room an hour or so after the finish.
Meurisse's win here meant that he became the ninth different rider from his team to notch up a victory this year. Alpecin-Fenix have grown in accordance with the road ambitions of Mathieu van der Poel, but while the Dutchman remains the leading light, the team has illuminated the season even in his absence, whether it was through Tim Merlier at the Giro d'Italia, Jasper Philipsen at the Vuelta a España or, indeed, Meurisse at the Giro del Veneto.
"That's actually why I chose to go to this team last year because we're one team and we fight for each other. If you see the victories of the team, it's not only Mathieu," Meurisse said. "For sure, he's the biggest guy on the team and he takes the most wins, but it's not only him. He motivates the other guys too, and it's nice that it's not only Mathieu who can win races."
As the best-ranked ProTeam of 2020, Alpecin-Fenix automatically earned the right to entry to all WorldTour events this season and they are, by this point, a top-flight team in everything but name. In the most recent UCI rankings, Alpecin-Fenix were in seventh place, and they will again be – by some distance – the best-ranked ProTeam of the year.
Early in the season, Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere complained that Alpecin-Fenix leant a little too heavily on their ProTeam status to avoid the responsibility of controlling WorldTour races, but Meurisse reckoned the team's increased standing in the peloton had become evident across the season.
"I do feel it because the last four years I was with Wanty [Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux] and we always had to work a lot for our place in the bunch. With Alpecin-Fenix, the biggest teams come and ask us to help control the race, even in the big WorldTour races. And that's also when Mathieu isn't racing," Meurisse said.
"I think there is a lot of respect in the bunch for what we do and we're sixth or seventh in the world rankings. I think that's a lot from our team."
Meurisse's victory on Wednesday was the fifth of his professional career. A robust all-rounder, the Kortrijk native's last successes were a stage and the overall at last season's Vuelta a Murcia, and he had spent much of this campaign in the service of men like Van der Poel and Merlier, but he raced with assurance in the breathless final kilometres in Padova.
The front of the race splintered on the final ascent of Il Roccolo, and Alpecin-Fenix were represented in numbers in the front, including the aggressive Ben Tulett, riding his final race before his transfer to Ineos Grenadiers. Meurisse was wise to the danger when Matteo Trentin attacked with 5km to go, bridging across with Jhonatan Restrepo (Androni Giocattoli).
The chasers were almost upon the three leaders by the time they reached the finish on the vast square of Prato della Valle. Meurisse held his nerve, however, and then delivered a well-timed sprint to beat Trentin to the line, while Alberto Dainese (Italy) sprinted to third place from the peloton.
"My sport director said I had to try to take the wheel of Matteo," Meurisse explained. "I know I have a sprint, but it's still Matteo and I never sprinted with him before, so I didn't know. In the last kilometre, I didn't look behind me anymore, and in the sprint, too, I just looked ahead at the finish line. In the end, the bunch finished right behind us. It was very close, but it was just enough."
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