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Merlier, from cyclocross to the Olympus of sprinting


When Tim Merlier won his first stage at Tirreno-Adriatico back in 2020, which also coincided with his first victory in Italy, he didn’t quite have the pedigree he has now. It was the first post-Covid reopening after months of lockdown and the ‘Corsa dei Due Mari’ was being held in an unusual autumnal setting; Merlier was said to be an excellent up-and-coming sprinter, though not a very young one given that he was already 27. His victory in Senigallia ahead of Pascal Ackermann, however, catapulted him into a new dimension and within two years he was one of the best sprinters around.

A native of Wortegem-Petegem, in Flanders, he spent the first part of his career in cyclo-cross, a discipline which, as Wout Van Aert and teammate Mathieu Van der Poel have largely demonstrated, is very much a preliminary step to road cycling. Not that he had never raced on the road, because even as a junior he tested himself in a few races within the national borders, but the focus remained for many years on off-road riding, on grass and mud. Although he reached very high levels in cyclo-cross, he never managed to fully establish himself (7th at the world championships in Valkenburg in 2018), while, on the other hand, his performances on the road were becoming more and more convincing and victories were starting to come (not to mention that the economic return for road races is vastly superior to cyclo-cross events).

Merlier soon discovered that he had two first-class engines in his legs and it is fair to say that he is now competing with Fabio Jakobsen, Caleb Ewan and teammate Jasper Philipsen for the title of best sprinter in the world. He was also lucky to come across a team like Alpecin-Fenix, perhaps the very best team when it comes to developing and launching sprinters to success.

Last year he had the pleasure of winning a stage at both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, displaying all his class and power. Although he will be 30 soon, the impression is that his status has yet to peak, and he still has plenty of achievements to add to his trophy cabinet.

And speaking of talented sprinters, today in Sovicille, behind Merlier, was Dutchman Olav Kooij. At 20 years, 4 months and 19 days old, he is the youngest athlete to stand on the podium of a stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico since 1981, when Raniero Gradi came second in the San Benedetto del Tronto time trial at the exact same age, as well as being the youngest Dutchman ever to stand on a stage podium. If a good day starts in the morning, as they say in Italy, this guy is destined to do great things. Better take note of his name.

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