Patrick Lefevere: Tim Merlier is a calmer sprinter than Jasper Philipsen

Soudal Quick-Step team boss praises his star sprinter after stage 1 victory at UAE Tour

Clock17:45, Tuesday 20th February 2024
Patrick Lefevere's Soudal Quick-Step are led by sports directors Klaas Lodewyck and Geert Van Bondt in the UAE

© Tim de Waele/Velo Collection via Getty Images

Patrick Lefevere's Soudal Quick-Step are led by sports directors Klaas Lodewyck and Geert Van Bondt in the UAE

No doubt buoyed by the demonstration put on by Tim Merlier just a day earlier at the UAE Tour, Soudal Quick-Step team boss Patrick Lefevere was in fine spirits as he paid a drop-in visit to the race on stage 2.

Speaking to GCN during his only day at the race, Lefevere was quick to revel in the start to the season enjoyed by his side.

"It's always great to win immediately, [Tim] won already in Saudi Arabia and only in Down Under, we were not able to win, but it's not a catastrophe. We have won almost everywhere," he said, pointing to Remco Evenepoel's victories in Portugal and Paul Magnier's first pro win at Trofeo Ses Salines-Felanitx.

Read more: Patrick Lefevere: I don’t care who wins, as long as they’re wearing our jersey

Spending the day catching up with old friends and shooting the breeze with his Soudal Quick-Step staff, Lefevere was noticeably relaxed as he wandered around the paddock in shorts, sunglasses and his trademark white fedora.

His mood only increased when the discussion turned to how Merlier was able to take victory on Monday, and in particular, the role of Fernando Gaviria's (Movistar) early launch that allowed the Belgian to benefit.

"Gaviria helped very well," Lefevere laughed, with Gaviria later admitting to GCN that his timing was a little off on the opening stage.

For Merlier, in a sprint field that contains the likes of Mark Cavendish (Astana Qazaqstan), Fabio Jakobsen (dsm-firmenich PostNL) and Dylan Groenwegan (Jayco AlUla), Monday's stage was a great marker.

"If you see who Tim beat here, they are the fastest guys in the world," noted Lefevere. "The sprint is always very hectic, there is confusion but he doesn't need the lead-out of five men to be able to win."

Read more: UAE Tour stage 1: Tim Merlier wins amid huge crash in home straight

Talk of Merlier's abilities naturally brought comparisons between the 31-year-old and Belgium's other pre-eminent sprinter, Jasper Philipsen. Both men are Grand Tour stage winners in bunch sprints and versatile enough to try their hand in the Flemish Classics.

However, Lefevere was hesitant to find many similarities between the pair. Instead, he pointed to what sets them apart.

"I think Jasper is a more nervous sprinter, Tim is always calm, he can do it alone. If he has a lead-out, of course, it is better, but Jasper needs space or he boxes space, as you saw last year at the Tour," he said, with reference to Philipsen's reputation for using his physicality in the bunch.

"But at least nobody crashed. I don't know who is the fastest of the two."

Unfortunately for those hoping to answer which of the two Belgians is the superior sprinter, the pair have only truly gone head-to-head in a sprint on three occasions over the last two seasons.

Since each rider took a victory apiece during Merlier's nine days at the Tour de France in 2021, the Quick-Step rider has not returned to the biggest race of the season. With the team's ambitions laid firmly in Evenepoel for this summer, a Tour spot for Merlier is yet again not on the cards, and Lefevere was even reticent to comment on whether the Belgian would ride a Grand Tour this season.

"It's a high level here," said Lefevere, rebuffing the notion of Merlier being tested at a higher level over three weeks. "So after [this] he will come to Europe.

"He will be at Tirreno and also the Belgian races because he is Flemish. We think he is able to win Gent-Wevelgem unless they make that race too hard. I don't see why it needs to do the Kemmelberg three times. He's a former cyclo-crosser so he should be good in Paris-Roubaix as well."

As for Merlier himself, the 31-year-old appears reasonably content to lay his focus on the Classics, for the time being at least.

"I do my own thing and I try to have some nice victories - to have a lot of victories - it isn't always possible, but I can be happy with my third victory of the season already," he told GCN and other members of the media after stage 1, laughing off the idea of him going to the Tour de France.

For all the important information about the 2024 UAE Tour, be sure to check out our dedicated race hub for our full preview, the race startlist and much more.

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