Tim Merlier can win Paris-Roubaix: Here’s how

We speak to Patrick Lefevere, Geert Van Bondt, Bert Van Lerberghe and Merlier himself to discover the masterplan for the 'Hell of the North'

Clock11:00, Saturday 6th April 2024
Tim Merlier stood on the top step of the Scheldeprijs podium on Wednesday

© Getty Images

Tim Merlier stood on the top step of the Scheldeprijs podium on Wednesday

Tim Merlier can win Paris-Roubaix. Not convinced? We weren’t either at first. But hear us out.

In the blistering heat of Al Hudayriyat Island at the UAE Tour, Patrick Lefevere cut a chipper figure at the start of stage 2. Sunglasses on, shorts on show and his trademark white fedora floating around his team’s gazebo, the Soudal Quick-Step boss could not have been happier with how the race had started. His star sprinter Merlier had won the opening stage and would soon take three victories over the course of the race’s seven stages. But his talent does not end there.

In fact, Lefevere threw us a curveball when he put forward his man from Wortegem-Petegem for a race close to the team’s heart, Paris-Roubaix.

“He's a former cyclo-crosser so he should be good in Paris-Roubaix as well,” Lefevere told GCN, after tipping Merlier to win Gent-Wevelgem in March. It wasn’t to be for Merlier, who rode to eighth place on the day, but the Belgian has enjoyed another successful spring with wins at Danilith Nokere Koerse and Scheldeprijs.

Read more: Scheldeprijs: Tim Merlier takes revenge on Jasper Philipsen

For a rider so synonymous with bunch sprints, Merlier has always been more versatile than one might imagine. As his boss noted, cyclo-cross has long been a passion of the 31-year-old and over the winter, he even became the Belgian beach race national champion. He has yet to translate this success onto the cobbles of northern France, but the signs are there that Paris-Roubaix, otherwise known as the ‘Hell of the North', is not completely out of Merlier’s reach.

“A win is of course not easy but last year, he was in the battle in front for a long time, but unfortunately in Paris-Roubaix, the bad luck rides with you and he had a flat tyre in a very bad moment,” added Lefevere. “We will see. He has one more year's experience because he started late on the road, but he's strong.”

With the gauntlet laid down by Lefevere and our attention piqued, we decided to get the opinions of those who know Merlier best: Soudal Quick-Step sports director Geert Van Bondt, Merlier’s childhood best friend and teammate Bert Van Lerberghe, and of course, the 31-year-old himself.

Each of them were equally taken aback by our line of questioning. “Tim for Roubaix, eh? Huh!” was the common response, no doubt with their minds on the sprint stages to come in the Middle East. But as each conversation continued, it became increasingly apparent that Soudal Quick-Step carry a quiet confidence in Merlier, despite most outside eyes falling to the chances of Kasper Asgreen and Yves Lampaert come Sunday.

It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be short odds at the bookmakers, but after consulting with the three Belgians and tracking the history of the Hell of the North over the last 30 years, you can count us convinced: Tim Merlier can win Paris-Roubaix. Here’s how.

‘I believe also,’ says Merlier

In a race where so much can go wrong, be it a crash or mechanical on the hellish cobblestones that litter northern France, the belief of one’s team is perhaps the first building block on the road to victory. Within the self-named ‘Wolfpack,’ Merlier certainly has that.

“Personally, I think so,” answered Van Bondt when asked if Merlier can win Paris-Roubaix. “I think he is built for it, he still does the cyclo-crossing and with the cobbles, he has the feeling.

“I think for him and for most of the riders, you just need a little bit of luck and I think when he is in that moment, he is in the right place and he doesn't have bad luck, I think for sure he can win Paris-Roubaix.”

Owing to the cobblestone sectors, which total 55.7km and dwarf those seen in the Tour of Flanders in their size and difficulty, luck is ever a theme of discussion when it comes to Paris-Roubaix. The world’s best have come undone over the pavé, whether it be Tom Boonen’s crash in the Trouée d'Arenberg, Wout van Aert’s ill-timed puncture on Carrefour de l’Arbre or Merlier’s own puncture last year that left a top-20 finish just out of reach.

“That’s a hard one I think,” said Van Lerberghe of his teammate’s chances. “It is always possible, he is a strong rider but then also if you see the last years, it is also a bit about luck. If he is in a good position and the day goes well, then I think it is possible, yes.”

Merlier and Van Lerberghe have been best friends since first becoming classmates at the age of 12. One look at both riders would suggest the latter as a Paris-Roubaix winner-in-the-making: Van Lerberghe has legs the size of tree trunks and still weighs considerably less than the heaviest winner of the race, Magnus Bäckstedt. Even so, it is Merlier who can be most confident of his own chances across the pavé. The 31-year-old has only ridden three editions to date but managed a commendable 23rd place last season.

“I believe also a little bit!” he admitted. “My condition needs to be, let’s not say 100%, but 130% or something, and a lot of luck also. We work every year to have that goal but until now, it didn’t work out well. This year we try again and I still believe a good result is possible.”

Read more: Paris-Roubaix: Moments that have defined cycling's most-loved Monument

With a clean run on Sunday, Merlier could prove an instrumental third string to Soudal Quick-Step’s bow. As noted, Asgreen and Lampaert will be the favoured riders with the bookmakers, with Asgreen a winner of multiple cobbled Classics and Lampaert a former podium finisher in Roubaix, but it will be with multiple leaders that Soudal Quick-Step look to dethrone the seemingly-impregnable Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck).

Strength in numbers is the way to beat Mathieu van der Poel

There are no two ways about it, regardless of Soudal Quick-Step’s confidence in Merlier’s chances on Sunday, Paris-Roubaix has one outstanding favourite in the form of Van der Poel. The reigning world champion will be hoping to defend his Paris-Roubaix title and become the first rider since Fabian Cancellara in 2013 to take the Flanders-Roubaix double.

Read more: A beginner's guide to Paris-Roubaix 2024

Lidl-Trek have worked out how to beat Van der Poel — they did a number on the Dutchman in Gent-Wevelgem — but crashes have since weakened them and their team leader, Mads Pedersen. In their place, there is an opening for Soudal Quick-Step to revive the spark of their halcyon days and use multiple leaders to their advantage.

“[Paris-Roubaix] will always be important, we also still have a team to do it and it’s a big part of the team,” said Van Lerberghe. “We have a lot of strong Classics riders, maybe not a Van der Poel or Van Aert, but if you see the 10 guys behind them, we have three or four guys in that 10.”

It is five years since Soudal Quick-Step last won Paris-Roubaix through Philippe Gilbert and placed Lampaert on the podium in third, and in that time, their crown as the Kings of the Classics has certainly slipped, giving way to the likes of Alpecin-Deceuninck and Lidl-Trek. However, the first step to addressing the problem is to recognise the problem, and Van Bondt is not too proud to admit that his team will be on the back foot from a standing start.

“We have to say like it is, if you have a Van Aert and Van der Poel, they are out of our category,” he acknowledged. “You just have to find a way to beat them if they have an issue or you just have to go earlier and then you have to sit in their wheel and hope that they cannot close that gap.

“I think to beat them you always have to have a smart plan, go a bit earlier and see if they can’t close the gap anymore.”

The Tim Merlier masterplan

For a smart plan, Merlier need look no further than his sports director Van Bondt, who does not hesitate in pitching the ideal scenario for the Belgian.

“He still can ride really long and he has a super fast sprint, so I think if he will win it will be with a group of 10 riders. He is there, he can save some energy on the road and he can find the position to go towards the cobbles.”

Van Lerberghe’s answer was exactly the same, despite the pair having not discussed the matter. But what does Merlier think of the masterplan?

“It must be the perfect situation this,” he smiled.

“Maybe with 30 guys or something! With the wind from the good side all day, some teammates still in the bunch and they do a good lead-out. Maybe it will be possible, I think this is the dream, but why not?”

Outsiders have all used small group sprints to their advantage over the past decade, with John Degenkolb, Mathew Hayman and Sonny Colbrelli all taking their one and only Roubaix victory when outsprinting a small number of opponents in the Vélodrome André-Pétrieux, albeit in groups much smaller than 10. Unlike Colbrelli, who won on debut in 2021, Merlier has the benefit of experience heading into the race.

“I was still in a good position but I didn’t get the legs last year, I did not take any risk and maybe I was a bit scared because the year before I had a hard crash there,” he said.

Read more: How Greg LeMond made a pioneering push for suspension forks at Paris-Roubaix

Merlier may be swimming against the tides of history in hoping for a 10-man sprint. It hasn’t occurred in the Belgian’s lifetime — in fact, seven of the last 15 editions have been won by a solo attack.

Merlier will be hoping for a race similar to the 1997 edition. That year, the big pre-race favourite was both the defending champion and the reigning world champion, only his name was Johan Museeuw and not Mathieu van der Poel. With Museeuw suffering no less than five punctures — let Van der Poel be warned — France’s Frédéric Guesdon took advantage and pipped the world champion in the Velodrome in an 8-man sprint.

It remains France’s last victory in their home Monument and is proof that Soudal Quick-Step’s confidence in Merlier is not misplaced. Group sprints of more than a handful of riders are certainly a rarity when it comes to Paris-Roubaix, but they do happen. So too can misfortune befall the outstanding favourite, be it a Museeuw or Van der Poel.

Merlier must hope to take the trials and tribulations in his stride at the weekend, carry the confidence of his teammates and sports directors onto the cobbles, and hope for a less selective finale to Paris-Roubaix. Should things fall his way, he is more than capable of surviving the cobbles and entering the Roubaix velodrome as the man to beat in a sprint.

Should he pull off an unlikely victory in the Hell of the North, it will be a dream come true for the former Belgian national champion.

“It was one of the races that me and my brother stayed at home all day to watch the television. I remember some races like Boonen going to the velodrome to sprint for victory. These are things you will remember for all your life!”

For the latest news, interviews and analysis from the world of professional cycling, be sure to check out the Racing tab on the GCN website and visit our essential guide to The Spring Classics to stay up to date with all of the action from cycling's most exciting season.

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