Giro d’Italia sprint analysis: Only chaos can defeat Jonathan Milan

Tim Merlier wins stage 18 as maglia ciclamino loses lead-out in fast finale, and Groves misses out again

Clock17:05, Thursday 23rd May 2024
Jonathan Milan was beaten by Tim Merlier on stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia

© Getty Images

Jonathan Milan was beaten by Tim Merlier on stage 18 of the Giro d'Italia

Over the last 10 days of racing, Jonathan Milan looked like the dominant sprinter of this Giro d’Italia. His Lidl-Trek lead-out is dialled, his positioning and timing rarely misses a beat, and his finishing speed is often almost unbelievable. When he won his last stage in Cento, it seemed hard to imagine how someone could beat him.

That was until stage 18, though. On a fast, disorganised sprint into Padova, it was stage 3 winner Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step) who came out on top to win his second stage of the race, capitalising on the hectic run-in to win. Milan still finished exceedingly fast, coming from a long way back to take second. Is creating chaos the only way to defeat the pre-eminent Italian?

Read more: Giro d'Italia stage 18 results: Tim Merlier wins sprint finish ahead of Jonathan Milan

“It was really chaotic, I think the most chaotic sprint that we did until now,” was how Milan summed up the stage after the finish, giving an insight into how things felt from inside the bunch.

From the outside, it isn’t always easy to tell what makes one fast, competitive bunch sprint any more hectic than another, but stage 18 was particularly hairy. The numerous corners and slight up and downs as the race entered the centre of Padova made for something of a washing machine effect, and there were few locked-in lead-outs on the front of the peloton.

Milan’s lead-out in this race has been working like a well-oiled machine, with Edward Theuns and Jasper Stuyven doing the initial work, before Simone Consonni acts as the last man, something he has been doing with immense skill and success so far. On stage 18, though, Milan lost his compatriot, and it cost him, as he had to launch from a long way down the field from completely the wrong position.

“Today actually is just my fault, because I lost their wheel,” he admitted. “It was such a big chaos in the last kilometres to be in the front. We were expecting the last kilometres to be a bit less tricky, but it was even more. But it's like this and I'm sorry because the team moved really in the perfect way.

“Finishing second is never beautiful, of course even more when your teammates ride like mine did today, and when you're also feeling good.”

The Italian finished with his signature monster speed, but it still wasn’t quite enough to beat Merlier to the line. Certainly proof that the only way to beat Milan is to shake him from his teammates in the final, which for his team is surely a disappointment, but also a good indicator or how good he is when he gets it right.

“It's of course a big disappointment, but in a sprint final a lot can happen and I think Merlier was almost in the same situation, and he got beaten by Tim Merlier, so it can happen,” was how Lidl-Trek DS Gregory Rast put it.

Tim Merlier also has to freestyle, but capitalises on chaos

As Rast alluded to, it wasn’t just Milan that lost, but also Merlier that won, and the Belgian was not immune to the sprint chaos, either. Despite all eyes being on Lidl-Trek, Soudal Quick-Step took things up early, starting with some early accelerations from Julian Alaphilippe, before handing over to the lead-out in the final kilometres.

He also then lost touch of his final riders, and similarly had to launch from a little too far down the group, but unlike Milan, he was able to come through the chaos and win. Merlier’s team taking things up so early arguably threw Lidl-Trek off their plan, and helped him to beat the Italian.

“The guys brought me all the time in a good position, I was not freewheeling but [riding] easy in the bunch. Then Černy did the lead-out, with a strong effort to hold us there, then Julian, Lamperti, also Mauri Vansevenant and the work of Peter Serry before,” Merlier explained of the long-range work Soudal Quick-Step did.

“With two [kilometres] to go we were a bit far back, me and Bert, and he decided to bring me to a good position for the second-last corner, you go out of this corner into the last 900 metres. Then I was just searching for a good position. To be honest I was a bit surprised after the last corner, I lost a bit too much positions, but then with 300 metres to go I launched.”

Read more: The GC standings at the Giro d'Italia

Stage 18 perhaps highlighted the difference between Milan and Merlier, who are easily making the case to put them both in the upper echelon of sprinters, alongside Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck). They are both super fast, that much is clear, but they thrive in different conditions. Give Milan a perfect lead-out and he is pretty much unbeatable, such is his immense power, but when things are tricky he can get out of position easily.

Merlier, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same maximum power, but has a lot more nous and instinct in the finale, able to surf through hectic situations and capitalise on them to win.

Kaden Groves comes closer but is still winless in Italy

With Jasper Philipsen not here to give us a real battle royale of sprinters, his teammate Kaden Groves is sprinting for Alpecin-Deceuninck, and has a consistent yet winless Giro so far.

He is almost always there, and his team always seem to do a good job, but the Australian just isn’t managing to find the final kick needed to win. He has some of both Merlier’s instinct and Milan’s power, but not enough to beat either of them, leaving him stuck settling for seconds, thirds and fourths whether the sprint is a tactical one or a numbers game.

“The team did a really good job, and I wanted to sprint from the front today. In the end I could actually do a good sprint, but Tim and Jonathan are too strong,” Groves said to Cycling Pro Net at the finish. “I think maybe [I launched] a bit too early, it’s possibly there was a bit of headwind, but these guys are so fast, so no excuses.”

Read more: Giro d’Italia: Analysing the sprinters – more exciting than the GC?

Despite not winning yet, Groves was surprisingly positive at the finish, not beating himself up for his results in the face of tough competition and a course that doesn’t necessarily suit his exact capabilities.

“I think I miss the perfect stages with quite a lot of climbing. I’m not a pure sprinter, and it’s showing, I don’t quite have the speed. But my performances, I’ve been happy with, just not happy with the result.”

With just one sprint opportunity left, in Rome, time is running out for Groves, who has won stages in the last two Grand Tours he started and would have been hoping for more here. The ever-unpredictable Rome stage may suit him more, but when Milan is this strong, and Merlier is this fast, it’s becoming increasingly hard to see where a Groves win fits into that.

For everything you need to know about the 2024 Giro d'Italia, from the history of the race to this year's route and start list, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub.

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