Tim Merlier: 'Mathieu van der Poel came to us and said he was not good, I thought he was joking'

Van der Poel lost touch with the main favourites group of the Knokteberg in the final 30km and drifted back to the peloton

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Mathieu van der Poel came to Dwars door Vlaanderen 2021 as the defending champion and the rider with the most wins taking part in the race but he looked a shell of his normal self on the roads of Belgium.

Van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) was dropped by the main favourites on the Knokteberg climb where he drifted back to the peloton that contained his team's on-form sprinter, Tim Merlier. The Belgian champion said he thought Van der Poel was joking when he said he wasn't feeling good.

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Merlier took third on the day behind eventual solo winner Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and spoke to Het Nieuwblad after the race: "In the beginning I didn't have a good feeling because of the heat, but that was improved by cooling myself with water.

"When Mathieu [van der Poel] came to us, he said he was not good. At first I thought he was joking, but he wasn't.

"Then we decided to start riding, because Jasper [Philipsen] was also in the front with too many fast men. From then on it was tunnel vision, and we hoped we were going to get him back. First the other teams came to help a bit, but then the support was somewhat gone. We ended up short on those today.

"The heat played a very big role. I know that I have a lot of trouble with that, but apparently other riders too. Everyone was complaining. I don't think we should draw too many conclusions from it. On Sunday it will be 10 degrees cooler and the situation will be different."

The race was full-on from the start with only three riders managing to make the break, but they were caught with around 55km to go, moments later the winning move was made by Van Baarle and it was a fight for the minor places behind.

Van der Poel, who has won four times this season, was hardly ever near the front apart from one small move from the peloton which led to the forming of the chasing group that included Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).

The Dutch champion did play a part in who got the podium places though thanks to one last big turn that he put in with just over a kilometre to go to pull back the Van Avermaet group, before finally getting dropped out of the back for good a few hundred metres later.

Other big names that seemed to either take it easy or suffer were world champion Julian Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen (both Deceuninck - Quick-Step), Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers), and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ).

The next big race for him is the Tour of Flanders on Sunday where he will hope to be back to his usual powerful self on the bike.

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Tim Bonville-Ginn

Hi, I'm one of Cycling Weekly's content writers for the web team responsible for writing stories on racing, tech, updating evergreen pages as well as the weekly email newsletter. Proud Yorkshireman from the UK's answer to Flanders, Calderdale, go check out the cobbled climbs!

I started watching cycling back in 2010, before all the hype around London 2012 and Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France. In fact, it was Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck's battle in the fog up the Tourmalet on stage 17 of the Tour de France.

It took me a few more years to get into the journalism side of things, but I had a good idea I wanted to get into cycling journalism by the end of year nine at school and started doing voluntary work soon after. This got me a chance to go to the London Six Days, Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of Britain to name a few before eventually joining Eurosport's online team while I was at uni, where I studied journalism. Eurosport gave me the opportunity to work at the world championships in Harrogate back in the awful weather.

After various bar jobs, I managed to get my way into Cycling Weekly in late February of 2020 where I mostly write about racing and everything around that as it's what I specialise in but don't be surprised to see my name on other news stories.

When not writing stories for the site, I don't really switch off my cycling side as I watch every race that is televised as well as being a rider myself and a regular user of the game Pro Cycling Manager. Maybe too regular.

My bike is a well used Specialized Tarmac SL4 when out on my local roads back in West Yorkshire as well as in northern Hampshire with the hills and mountains being my preferred terrain.