Nice and ruthless? Merlier-Philipsen clash at De Panne reveals contrasting characters

The two Belgians have established themselves as the fastest of the fast men this year, yet their most recent showdown reveals how differently the sprinters approach their craft

Clock20:29, Wednesday 20th March 2024
Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen at the start of the Classic Brugge-De Panne

© Getty Images

Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen at the start of the Classic Brugge-De Panne

The biggest sprint rivalry of the 2024 season threatened to gain a new edge at the Classic Brugge-De Panne on Wednesday, as Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Tim Merlier (Soudal Quick-Step) both dived for the same gap in the home straight. The Belgian pair, both seeking the space by the barriers to the left of early-launcher Danny van Poppel (Bora-Hansgrohe), came together and made contact but, both pausing, stayed upright and got on with the sprint.

A hundred metres or so later, Philipsen was raising his arms in celebration, while Merlier was throwing his around in remonstration.

Merlier was visibly frustrated but didn’t blame Philipsen personally for what had happened, instead rueing the fact that he was unable to open the taps in full or fluid fashion.

“A few collarbones could have been broken, or worse,” Merlier said at the finish. “The moment I want to open up, I got a push from behind. I held back. If I had pushed further at that moment, Jasper would have gone over the barrier and I would have been the one to blame. I had no more room and was therefore stuck behind the wheel at Van Poppel. I was not able to do my sprint, so I am disappointed.”

Philipsen himself brushed off any hint of animosity between the pair beyond the line, describing the clash as a standard racing incident.

“We both wanted to go into this gap and it went very tight at a certain moment. There was only space for one guy and I’m happy we could stay upright and we could both do our sprints in the end.”

The thing was, Merlier clearly didn’t feel he was able to do his sprint, and it triggered some internal reflection about whether he could, or should, have done things differently. He thinks he knows the answer, but still, it pulled at a deeper thread.

“Maybe I’m too ‘good’,” he said, using a Flemish word that can mean ‘honest’ or ‘righteous’. “But I don't want to get anyone killed.

“Sprinting is not easy, and it’s always a risk.”

Merlier’s comments hint at a key difference between these sprinting rivals, two Belgians who have pulled away as the leading fastmen in the sport this season.

“Tim is not the man with the most self-confidence in the world,” Marc Ghyselinck, chief cycling writer at Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws, told us.

“Tim always questions himself, whether or not he’s good enough, this or that. Jasper, on the other hand, I don’t think he ever doubts about what he can do. In the sprints, that means he takes more risks. That’s a huge difference between the two of them. I think in top speed they equal each other.”

That difference also translates into public appeal, with Philipsen more of a household name, and not just because of the relative richness of his palmarès.

“If you speak about star quality, Jasper has more of it than Tim. Tim is appreciated for his capabilities as a sprinter but Jasper more for his personality. He is known as something of a ‘funny guy’, someone who forgets everything and so on.”

Merlier has struck six times already this term, while De Panne was the third for Philipsen, who has won bigger in the form of Milan-San Remo last weekend and four stages of the Tour de France last year.

Formerly teammates on Alpecin-Deceuninck, Philipsen has grasped the lead sprinting mantle there, while Merlier has top billing at Soudal Quick-Step but in a squad that’s now geared around Remco Evenepoel’s general classification ambitions, at least when it comes to the Tour de France.

Either way, the pair have locked horns repeatedly in recent weeks as they’ve distinguished themselves from a wide case of sprinters, with Philipsen having the edge at Tirreno-Adriatico but Merlier returning with interest at Nokere Koerse.

The clash at De Panne was the latest episode, but both parties would describe this as a healthy and friendly rivalry.

“He showed this year he’s one of the fastest with some nice victories already but I don't try and be better than someone else specifically, I always try to be the best myself," said Philipsen, reluctant to entertain the notion of having one rival above all others.

Merlier, however, offered a little more insight into the pair’s relationship.

“It’s quite ok. Last year we ate pizza together in his apartment in Tenerife,” Merlier told GCN. “I’m looking forward to more nice duels together, and we can show the world we are both the fastest.”

Then again, that last comment perhaps hints at that generosity of character, in contrast to Philipsen saying that he alone wants to be the best. Admirable it may be, but it will always leave that question mark over whether a dash more ruthlessness would lead to a dash more success.

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