Meet Tim Merlier, the ‘rookie’ sprinter with two Grand Tour stage wins

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Meet Tim Merlier, the ‘rookie’ sprinter with two Grand Tour stage wins

Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) is a rookie in the peloton. At least, that’s how he sees it himself. “This is the first year I consider myself a full-time road cyclist and that means I am learning like a rookie,” the Grand Tour stage winner tells CyclingTips. “It’s a fast-learning curve but I feel like a novice somedays.”

For a rookie he does pretty well. With dominant sprint stage wins in both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France this year the now-28-year-old has catapulted himself into the upper echelons of the sprinting game, but Merlier is a remarkably modest and humble guy in that world.

 

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“I will never be a show-off,” he says. “That’s just not my character. It’s a big advantage that Mathieu van der Poel gets so much attention and deflects from me because being a team leader is not something that comes naturally to me.

“Jonas [Rickaert] is usually the guy who tells me to stand up more for myself during team meetings. He is also the man calling the shots in the races.” 

Merlier started his career in cyclocross as a young boy. In Wortegem-Petegem, the village in the province of East-Flanders he comes from, bikes were part of his life from an early age. 

“Me and my brother [Braam, a former professional cyclocross rider] were always outside and were the daredevils of Wortegem-Petegem,” he laughs. “And then our mother had to come and find us somewhere again. We were always racing each other.”

He could have ended up on the road bike but he and his brother chose the mud. Mario De Clercq, the 1998, 1999, and 2002 world cyclocross champion lived in the same village and – maybe unwittingly – served as inspiration for the Merlier boys. 

Tim Merlier at the Grote Ereprijs Paul Herygers race in 2020.

Merlier became Belgian junior cyclocross champion in 2010 and finished in the top 10 in European and World Championships, and numerous other races. Winning didn’t happen very often because there were always guys like Wout van Aert or Mathieu van der Poel. 

He would always ride top 10s but would never win a big race or a ranking like the Superprestige or the UCI World Cup. Although others spotted Merlier’s potential on the road, he himself remained a cyclocross rider at heart who did road races as preparation for the season that usually starts mid-September.

Cyclocross riders start to build their form towards the new season by riding road races from June to mid-August. Merlier’s first win on the road was the GP Stad Zottegem, one of those typical Belgian one-day races in August of 2016. He added two stage wins at the Tour of Denmark in 2018 and got a call from then-Corendon-Circus team manager Philip Roodhooft.

“He called me but I wasn’t ready to make a full-time switch to the road,” Merlier says. “But when I saw Gianni Vermeersch race Gent-Wevelgem that year I did regret my decision [to turn down a road team].” 

Tim Merlier wins his first WorldTour race at Tirreno-Adriatico in 2020.

Merlier’s career path gradually became clear although he admits he doesn’t do any career planning. The 2018/2019 cyclocross season had been a bad one due to a lingering parasite in his body. In the spring he rode Belgian kermesses in a black, neutral cycling kit because his Creafin cyclocross team didn’t have a UCI license to do road races. 

In May 2019, the Roodhooft brothers – Philip and Christoph – again asked Merlier to join and went to great lengths to make sure he did so this time. They took over the entire Creafin cyclocross team so he could continue his cyclocross career and added him to their road team Corendon-Circus. The only goal with this acquisition was to have Merlier ride the Belgian championships. A month later Merlier became Belgian champion.

In the 2020 COVID-affected season Merlier won his first WorldTour race with a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico. This year he has won seven races already.

Merlier is a fast learner but also very hard on himself. He knows he is not the only older rider having a breakthrough but clearly expected more from the first Grand Tours of his career. He had to leave both the Giro d’Italia, while in the ciclamino points jersey, and the Tour de France, prematurely.

“After leaving the Tour de France [on stage 9] I had a mental setback,” he says. “I was angry at myself. And disappointed. I had never done a race longer than a week [before this year]. I had never raced in the high mountains before. I got some wattage records in both the Giro and the Tour but still I didn’t make it. In that respect I am a rookie bike racer.” 

A rookie with a huge amount of talent he doesn’t yet fully acknowledge himself all the time, but one with a Tour de France stage on his palmares already. Mathieu van der Poel served as the perfect lead-out for Merlier on stage 3 of the Tour but Merlier also emphasizes the roles of others on the Alpecin-Fenix team. 

“Jonas [Rickaert] is very important on the team,” he says. “He and Alexander Krieger [in the Giro] are perfect lead-out riders for me. They make sure there isn’t too much stress. Jonas doesn’t panic and takes you exactly where you need to be. He calls the shots and I need to learn to rely on him or Alexander.

“In the Tour de Wallonie last year you saw that I wanted to draw my own plan in the final but in hindsight I should have just followed Alexander. I did that this Giro and he brought me where I needed to be in every sprint.”

Tim Merlier honors Wouter Weylandt after winning stage 2 in the 2021 Giro d’Italia.

Merlier doesn’t care about fame. He often just chats with the clients in his mum’s café next to the church in Wortegem-Petegem. After his Belgian title he personally thanked everyone who sent him a message. He doesn’t brag about his remarkable achievements in 2021 either, a season which can be considered his definitive breakthrough as a top sprinter. He is already looking ahead and sees many areas where he can improve. He is eager to do so for his next Grand Tour. 

“No, I am not going to do the Vuelta as well,” he says with a laugh. “They say it’s the easiest Grand Tour to finish but no. I didn’t have the perfect preparation for the Tour de France either so the Vuelta is not for me. My next goal is to finish a Grand Tour but not this year. A goal is to contest the sprint on the Champs-Élysées.”

The 28-year-old will focus on the many one-day races Belgium has in August and September. It’s those races he excelled at before setting foot on the highest stage. 

“My dream races are Gent-Wevelgem and also Dwars door Vlaanderen or Scheldeprijs,” he says. “One-day racing is what suits me best. In a stage race I don’t recover that well and get more tired each and every day. My sprint stays OK but in the high mountains I suffer. That’s a goal to work on.” 

Merlier is quickly rising through the ranks of pro cycling. He does well in Flemish races and will most likely win a few races more this season. The world championships in Belgium would be a dream but like in everything else, Merlier is a realist.

“We have Wout van Aert for this race,” he says. “I do hope to be selected because it would be a dream to represent Belgium in front of our own fans. Everyone wants that so I will have to wait and see.”

And cyclocross? Yes, during the winter Merlier will navigate the muddy tracks of Belgium again but now in full preparation for the next road season.

With all the success he’s had in the past year or so, Tim Merlier certainly deserves his spot among the world’s best sprinters. Indeed, with two Grand Tour stage wins to his name already, few see him as a rookie of the peloton anymore. If the wins keep coming, maybe he’ll start to feel that way too.

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