Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) continued to his stellar run of form in 2021 as he sprinted to victory on the opening stage of the Benelux Tour.
The Belgian beat Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Merida) and Álvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) to the line from a reduced front group, powering clear with no one able to get close to rounding him before the line in Dokkum, the Netherlands.
The race had split up just inside the final 40km when the peloton split in crosswinds. The day's main breakaway was then caught by a group of 30 riders who were able to hold out a gap of almost a minute on the chasing group behind to the finish.
A stage favourite Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and an overall favourite Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) were both dropped by the leading group, the former due to a crash inside 25km to go and the latter due to a mechanical just inside 30km to go.
As well as the stage win, Merlier also takes the overall lead heading into stage two, with bonus seconds on the line giving him a four-second lead over Bauhaus in second.
More to follow...
How it happened
The opening stage of the Benelux Tour 2021 would take riders on a 169.6km route through the Netherlands from Surhuisterveen to Dokkum.
A generally flat route, the stage looked to favour the high-calibre sprint field assembled for the race, though teams would need to remain attentive to attacks and the chance of crosswinds.
There were attempts to escape from the drop of the flag for the stage start proper, with a group of seven getting away and building up an early advantage of 2-30. That group contained Julien Duval (Ag2r Citroën Team), Logan Owen (EF Education Nippo), Guillaume Boivin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Luke Durbridge (Team BikeExchange), Arjen Livyns (Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB), Ludovic Robeet (Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB), and Ward Vanhoof (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).
Those seven riders managed to eke out a maximum advantage of over four minutes, though it did continue to look like the peloton could pull them back in at any given moment if they put in the impetus.
At the halfway point in the stage the advantage to the break had drifted to 3-20, but more notably we saw the first abandon of the race. Jakob Fuglsang (Astana-Premier Tech) was forced to pull the plug on his race following a crash; the extent of his injuries severe enough for him to be taken to hospital for assessment.
The main action in the stage took place just inside 40km to go, when crosswinds split the main peloton and saw a group of around 30 riders get clear.
They quickly made their way up to the seven leaders, and were beginning to put some substantial distance between them and the second group.
Race favourite Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) had made it into the leading group - which also contained the likes of Tiesj Benoot (DSM), Oliver Naesen (Ag2r Citroën Team), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal), and Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Victorious) - but was forced to stop after a wheel problem with around 30km to go, dropping back to the second group and suffering a severe dent to his GC ambitions.
Likewise Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who would have been eyeing a stage victory in the sprint, was dropped from the front group which contained key sprinters including Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Álvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), and Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious). Sagan went down in a crash inside 25km to go, though it was unclear from television cameras how exactly it had happened.
With two key riders out of the group, the next focus for those in the lead was the ‘Golden Kilometre’ time bonuses with 17.5km to go, offering three opportunities for riders to take three, two, and one bonus seconds inside that kilometre.
Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) took the first ahead of Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) and Mohorič, before Mohorič claimed the second ahead of Tenunissen and Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick-Step). The third was taken in a late charge by Benoot ahead of Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious), with Asgreen hoovering up the final bonus second.
The gap now between the front of the race and the second chasing group was at around 1-30, though the chasers were working hard to try and close that down as much as possible before the line.
After some tentative attacks following the Golden Kilometre, the front group came back together and rode as one group towards what looked to be a sprint finish.
Bahrain-Victorious did much of the leg work in controlling that group, and were forced to chase hard as Lukas Pöstlberger made a late attack with 1.2km to go.
Once he had been caught just ahead of a left hand turn into the final 500m, Bahrain appeared to have lost their position at the front of the bunch. Jasper Stuyven then came to the fore to lead things out for his Trek-Segafredo team-mate Mads Pedersen, before Álvaro Hodeg went on a long one to try and grab the victory.
There was nothing any of them could do when Tim Merlier launched his winning move in the final 200m however, coming out of Hodeg’s slipstream to hold off the pursuing Bauhaus and claim the stage victory.
The second group, which contained a number of GC hopefuls, rode into the finish at around 58 seconds down.
The Benelux Tour continues on Tuesday with an individual time trial of 11.1km in the Dutch city of Lelystad.
Benelux Tour 2021, stage one: Surhuisterveen to Dokkum (169.6km)
1. Tim Merlier (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix, in 3-32-10
2. Phil Bauhaus (Ger) Bahrain-Merida
3. Álvaro Hodeg (Col) Deceuninck-Quick-Step
4. Fernando Gaviria (Col) UAE Team Emirates
5. Mads Pedersen (Den) Trek-Segafredo
6. Danny van Poppel (Ned) Intermarché - Wanty - Gobert Matériaux
7. Max Walscheid (Ger) Qhubeka-NextHash
8. Stanisław Aniołkowski (Pol) Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB
9. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Jumbo-Visma, all at same time
General classification after stage one
1. Tim Merlier (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix, 3-32-10
2. Phil Bauhaus (Ger) Bahrain-Merida, at 4 seconds
3. Álvaro Hodeg (Col) Deceuninck-Quick-Step, at 6s
4. Mike Teunissen (Ned) Jumbo-Visma
5. Matej Mohorič (Slo) Bahrain-Victorious, all at same time
6. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Team DSM, at 7s
7. Lukas Pöstlberger (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at same time
8. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Victorious, at 8s
9. Kasper Asgreen (Den) Deceuninck-Quick-Step, at same time
10. Fernando Gaviria (Col) UAE Team Emirates, at 10s
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