Tim Merlier dominated stage three of the Tour de France 2021, in a day that was blighted by crashes.
The Alpecin-Fenix sprinter was in perfect position in the final 1km, sitting in third wheel behind his lead-out train.
Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) finished in the leading group to hold onto the race lead, while Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) lost a chunk of time in his own crash inside the final 10km.
How it happened
Stage three of the Tour de France 2021 looked to be the first opportunity for the pure sprinters to fight for victory, with an 182km run from Lorient to Pontivy in Brittany.
But it wouldn’t be an easy run for the sprint trains, the course rolling consistently and featuring two categorised climbs, 90 and 30km from the finish.
After the second major climb of the day, the peloton then had to climb an uncategorised ascent before dropping down into a nasty technical finish, with a slip downhill drag to the line.
As the flag dropped in Lorient, Ide Schelling (Bora-Hansgrohe) was the first man to attack, with four other riders jumping across to establish the day’s breakaway.
Going along with Schelling were Jelle Wallays (Cofidis), Michael Schar (Ag2r-Citroen), Cyril Barthe and Maxime Chevalier (B&B Hotels p/b KTM), with the escapees extending their advantage out to three minutes in the opening 20km.
Drama hit the peloton with 144km left to race, as Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) was caught in a nasty crash near the front of the bunch, initially appearing injured on the floor.
But after a team doctor appeared to pop Thomas’s dislocated shoulder back into place, the Welshman was able to get back on the bike and begin to chase down the tail of the peloton.
Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma) wasn’t so lucky in the crash and was forced to abandon the Tour de France.
After a 20km chase, and with help from team-mates Luke Rowe, Jonathan Castroviejo and Dylan van Baarle, Thomas miraculously rejoined the bunch and looked to be more comfortable on the bike.
The forecast rain did hit the peloton in the middle stages, but the skies quickly cleared, as Ide Schelling attacked to lead the breakaway over the first categorised climb of the day, the Cote de Cadoudal, extending his lead in the mountains classification.
As Schelling sat up to rejoin the peloton, the rest of the break pressed on with a 2-30 advantage.
The next action came at the intermediate sprint 64km from the finish, with Caleb Ewan leading the peloton across to score 11 points in the green jersey competition, with Mark Cavendish also getting involved to score.
Tensions in the bunch then began to rise as the final kilometres approached, with a number of crashes affecting the bunch, most significantly for Primoz Roglic who fell hard just inside the final 10km.
The Jumbo-Visma leader was able to get back on the bike and with team-mates around him he tried to minimise his losses.
Finally after 5km, the break was caught by the Ineos-led bunch, setting up the bunch sprint we expected.
More crashes blighted the final 5km causing a split near the front of the bunch as Lotto-Soudal drilled the pace, with Alpecin-Fenix also in strong position for Tim Merlier.
Into the technical final 2km Mathieu van der Poel led the front group for Merlier, with Ewan not far behind, but with Mark Cavendish absent at the pivotal moment.
Alpecin led into the final 1km, perfectly positioning their man in third wheel, Merlier then launching his sprint 200m from the finish.
But one final crash would affect the race, as Caleb Ewan lost control at speed and veered into Peter Sagan, both riders going down.
Meanwhile Merlier sprinted to a comfortable victory, followed by his team-mate Jasper Philipsen, with Nacer Bouhanni (Arkea-Samsic) in third.
The GC race was hugely upset by the crashes, but Van der Poel stays in the yellow jersey with an eight-second advantage over Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck - Quick-Step).
Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) jumps into third at 31 seconds.
The race continues with another sprint opportunity on stage four, over 150km from Redon to Fougeres.
Tour de France 2021, stage three: Lorient to Pontivy (182.9km)
1. Tim Merlier (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix, in 4-01-28
2. Jasper Philipsen (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix
3. Nacer Bouhanni (Fra) Arkéa-Samsic
4. Davide Ballerini (Ita) Deceuninck-Quick-Step
5. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain Victorious
6. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck-Quick-Step
7. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix
8. Cees Bol (Ned) Team DSM
9. Anthony Turgis (Fra) TotalEnergies
10. Max Walscheid (Ger) Qhubeka-NextHash, all at same time
General classification after stage three
1. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix, in 12-58-53
2. Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Deceuninck-Quick-Step, at 8 seconds
3. Richard Carapaz (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers, at 31s
4. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma, at same time
5. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 38s
6. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, at 39s
7. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar Team, at 40s
8. Nairo Quintana (Col) Arkéa-Samsic, at same time
9. Pierre Latour (Fra) TotalEnergies, at 45s
10. Sergio Higuita (Col) EF Education First-Nippo, at 52s
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