Merlier wins on his first ever Grand Tour road stage
Despite coming up against a sprinters’ field that includes many veterans of multiple stage wins, it was a Grand Tour rookie who took the spoils.
Tim Merlier has impressed all season for Alpecin-Fenix, shining in the flatter spring Classics to win three races already this season — a total which is, incidentally, as many as his much more famous team-mate Mathieu van der Poel has this spring.
But this was new territory for the 28-year-old Belgian, who has never before ridden a Grand Tour, and therefore lacks experience in the kind of hectic, tense and highly competitive sprints you get at this level, of which today’s messy finish was a quintessential example.
Despite the new and difficult circumstances, Merlier passed the test with flying colours, outpacing Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) and Elia Viviani (Cofidis) to take victory.
With this win in the bag he’s proven himself to be an elite sprinter, and is likely to be in the mix in the sprints to come.
Groenewegen in the mix on his return to racing
There were big question marks heading into the race concerning whether Dylan Groenewegen would be able to immediately compete for stage wins after such a long break from racing after his nine-month ban, especially considering how late the decision was for him to ride the Giro.
On his stage two showing, it appears he’s certainly ready. The Dutchman managed to latch onto Giacomo Nizzolo’s wheel in the sprint, and although he wasn’t quite able to come around the Italian, he still had the strength to resist the challenge from those behind him to seal third-place.
Some thought that Jumbo-Visma may choose to back David Dekker in the sprints rather than Groenewegen, after Dekker impressed earlier this at the UAE Tour. But Groenewegen insisted at the start of the day that he was designated sprinter, and indeed Dekker was one of several riders (including yesterday’s runner-up Edoardo Affini in the purple jersey) helping protect him at the front of the bunch as the finale approached.
We’re used to seeing Groenewegen put in a quicker finishing kick than this in the past, but he will certainly take heart after what has been such a long time out of racing. If he can keep improving and blow off the cobwebs, a stage win later down the line is certainly on the cards.
Gaviria nearly felled by his own teammate
Although the opening road stage thankfully passed mostly without any crashes, with Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) the day’s only victim of a crash, Fernando Gaviria only narrowly avoided going down in the finale after nearly colliding with his own lead-out man Juan Sebastian Molano.
After being distanced from his lead-out to the sprint, Molano ended up inadvertently getting in the way of Gaviria as the Colombian attempted to go around him through a narrow gap by the barrier, and became unbalanced as he attempted to squeeze through.
While it certainly could have been worse had he not kept his balance, Gaviria will rue not being able to produce a sprint.
Pre-stage favourite Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) will also be disappointed having slipped down the peloton during the lead-out and therefore failing to launch a sprint.
Elia Viviani (Cofidis) will also have hoped to have done better, especially after his Cofidis teammates did such a great lead-out for him, leading the peloton as it negotiated the final tricky bends in the road. The Italian simply didn’t have the legs to match the accelerations of Merlier, Nizzolo and Groenewegen when they started their sprints, and has to settle for fourth.
But Nizzolo will probably be happy with his legs after sprinting for second, even if his long, frustrating run without winning a Giro d’Italia stage continues.
Confusion at the intermediate sprint
Prior to the bunch finish, the first intermediate sprint of the Giro ended in embarrassment for the four sprinters who contested it as they mistook which mark they were meant to be sprinting for.
Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Andrea Pasquelon (Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert) all moved to the front of the bunch as the sprint approached, with Viviani appearing to win to take maximum points.
But it turned out that they had mistaken the 40km to go banner for the sprint line, which was a few meters further up the road.
Once realising this, Gaviria rolled through ahead of Viviani to take the eight points available (after the leading breakaway duo had gained the maximum points).
Despite the mistake, the quartet all at least managed to register points in the points classification, and by going for the sprint signalled their intent to compete for the maglia ciclamino.
Notably absent from the sprint were Caleb Ewan, Tim Merlier, Dylan Groenewegen and Giacomo Nizzolo, all of whom decided to save their energy for the sprint at the end of the stage.
That’s not surprising from Ewan (who may not be planning on making it all the way to Milan, given how he intends to ride all three Grand Tours this season), Merlier (who might find challenging for that competition difficult given he’s a Grand Tour debutant) and Groenewegen (who’s coming back from such a long time off from racing).
But you might have expected Nizzolo to compete for it, given he’s twice won the maglia ciclamino in his career. Clearly his priority is to finally win what would be a long-awaited first ever Giro d’Italia stage win.
Credit to the breakaway trio on an uneventful opening road stage
On stages like this, where not a lot happens for most of the day and the vast majority of the bunch enjoy an easy day in the saddle, credit to the riders who commit to going out on the attack and getting into the breakaway.
Stage two, three riders put their nose to the wind, all three of them from the wildcard Italian teams: Umberto Marengo from Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè, Filippo Tagliani from Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec and Vincenzo Albanese from EOLO-Kometa.
These riders are the unsung heroes of Grand Tours, who are obliged to commit to breakaways which have virtually no chance of succeeding in service of their teams, acting as human billboards for their sponsors as the TV cameras follow their progress throughout the day.
If you find yourself with a sudden inexplicable urge to buy some Androni Giocattoli toys for your kids, switch your internet service provider to Eolo, or invest in some Bardiani hygienic valves, then they’ll have done their job.
Of the three riders, Albanese will be most rewarded for his efforts, after he won the sprint on the day’s only climb to take the lead in the mountains classification.
He was in no rush to join the other two after later being struck by a mechanical, and returned to the peloton, but by winning that sprint he’ll wear the maglia azzurra on stage three — a significant achievement for both him and his team.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.