Tim Merlier: I want to show that 2021 was not just a lucky year

Alpecin-Fenix's sprinter on the "dream" of winning at the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, and riding with Mathieu van der Poel

Tim Merlier
Tim Merlier in the points jersey at the Giro d'Italia last year
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There was just one man who won a stage at the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France last year. Alpecin-Fenix's Tim Merlier. 

Perhaps he is not one of the sport's brightest lights, but the Belgian finished joint fifth on victories in 2021, ahead of his more illustrious team-mate Mathieu van der Poel. 

In just his second proper year with a road schedule, the 29-year old won nine races, including those stages of the Giro and the Tour, and a host of Belgian one-day races.

Asked if winning feels normal, he is very clear: "No, no, no, no, no."

He continues: "If you ask me if I am going to win again in the Tour or the Giro, then I'm not gonna say for sure or something. If I win again it will be a dream. If you remember me on a victory of the Giro, or the Tour, it's unbelievable. It was like living the dreams."

On stage two of the 2021 Giro, Merlier outsprinted Giacomo Nizzolo, Elia Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen to deliver his and Alpecin-Fenix's first-ever Grand Tour stage win. 

Two months later, he won the crash-marred stage three at the Tour, beating his team-mate Jasper Philipsen and Nacer Bouhanni in the sprint. Not bad for the man who described himself as a "rookie" last year.

Now, his goal is simple: he needs to back these results up, to show that 2021 was not a one-off, and he belongs at the top table of sprinters. As he puts it: "This is another year. So you start again from zero."

However, there is more to Merlier than just speed, and he wants to prove himself at the Classics too; last year's third place at Dwaars door Vlaanderen proved there was more there than just a sprint.

"I want to be good as possible, to do the same this year," he says. "But that will not be easy, so I'm really looking forward to it, to try to do as good as last year."

There is weight on the Belgian's shoulders, but it is not insurmountable, he explains.

"I have pressure for myself, I want to show that it was not a lucky year last year," he says. "I want to show the team and everyone around cycling that I can do the same. So for myself I put a bit of pressure on my shoulders. I can live with it.

"It gives a good feeling that I did it, but like I said before, it was like a dream when I'm living it. If you're young the Tour de France was so big, it was already so big that I was a participator, and now I win a stage, it's good."

Tim Merlier wins stage three of the Tour de France 2021

(Image credit: Benoit Tessier - Pool/Getty Images)

Merlier is down to make his season debut at the Volta ao Algarve next week. Already this season, the sprinting field has been show to be competitive, with Dylan Groenewegen, Fabio Jakobsen, and Caleb Ewan already winning among others.

Watching on television from his altitude training camp in Spain, Merlier says that it has made him "nervous".

"I think I'm still learning for sure," he says. "Every sprint is different, and or sure you need to get the legs also. I am watching the races now and I'm really nervous, because on television it looks like they are really really fast at the moment, all of them. I'm already nervous for the first race.

"Well now I'm at altitude training here to be on a good level and try and put everything out of me to be good. I'm trying to be on a top level when I race, but I don't know... I hope with altitude I will already be directly good, but we will see next week how I'm going to react."

It helps to be at a team as ambitious as Alpecin-Fenix. Despite not being on the WorldTour, they outranked all but six of the supposedly bigger teams last year. 

Alongside Merlier is Philipsen, a sprinter who also won nine races in 2021. Meanwhile, their biggest asset is Van der Poel, who is returning to the bike after a back injury kept him away from the end of the cyclocross season.

The Belgian tells it succintly: "Mathieu is on another level."

They strengthened over the winter, signing proven talents like Michael Gogl and Robert Stannard.

"We have a lot of good riders. I think again, we are a bit stronger than last year," Merlier argues. "I believe we can do even better than last year. We need a bit of luck also, let's hope that Mathieu recovers fast, it makes us also easier for us.

"It's a good team, and I have the confidence of it. I want to show the team that it was not one rookie year last season."

Racing alongside someone like Van der Poel is only an advantage, Merlier says, although he has had to race as a sole leader at times. Alpecin-Fenix is certainly developing beyond just being a project around their flying Dutchman, but he is still the most exciting talent at the squad.

"If I can choose I would always ride a program with Mathieu," he explains. "Because if you ride with a strong team with another winner, yeah, it makes it easier in the mind. That's what I like the most. 

"If everything is on my shoulders, it's difficult, more difficult, but okay, I did that already at the Giro. We started with a team riding just for me. But with a really strong team and with more than one leader, that is always nice."

Tim Merlier

Tim Merlier with Mathieu van der Poel

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Merlier's big goal for 2022 is to win a semi-Classic like Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne or Dwaars door Vlaanderen, two races where you could see his skills come to the fore.

"I'm not really a puncheur but I'm always really strong when I see the finish line," is how he describes himself.

"With what the feeling was in the last two years in a race like Kuurne, it's possible to get better results," he says. "For sure, everything needs to go perfect to win a race like that. I'm going to try it and then we will see what happens."

The dream would be a higher profile like Gent-Wevelgem, a race that is so much harder because it's 250km in distance. He has twice finished in the top-35, but to finish higher requires a big push.

"If a race is 220km like the Nationals, I still get really strong power in the legs for the sprint," Merlier explains. "But if the race from 250km the power drops a bit, also on the climbs the legs are hurting. If you can do the same watts on the first climb as the last climb, you are in the final for sure."

However, recent winners have all been riders who are fast as well as strong, like Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen, and Peter Sagan. For the man who spent most of his professional career concentrating on cyclocross, the jump to the road might have come at the perfect time.

Asked what would make a perfect 2022, Merlier finds it hard to decide: "A big victory and many victories, would make me happy I think. It's difficult to choose."

One thing is certain, however, the Belgian is a force to be reckoned with.

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