Tim Merlier and Van Lerberghe continue to thrive at UAE Tour

Soudal Quick-Step pair link up for second victory in four days, as stage winner Tim Merlier shines a light on their relationship and Geert Van Bondt heaps praise

Clock21:45, Thursday 22nd February 2024
Successful in the opening two sprint stages at the UAE Tour, Tim Merlier is a man on a roll

© Tim de Waele/Velo Collection via Getty Images

Successful in the opening two sprint stages at the UAE Tour, Tim Merlier is a man on a roll

Born just 31 days apart in the autumn of 1992, Soudal Quick-Step's Tim Merlier and Bert Van Lerberghe are a duo whose fates have long since been connected. In their professional careers, however, the connection is only just beginning to blossom.

A teammate with Van Lerberghe for a little over a year, Merlier was joined by his Belgian compatriot in all but one of his 13 victories in 2023. In the early knockings of 2024, their alliance looks more exciting and effective than ever before.

After four days at the UAE Tour, Merlier has sprinted to victory on the two opportunities for the fast men, whilst Van Lerberghe has played a crucial role in each. As noted by Merlier in his post-stage 4 press conference, the partnership between the sprinter and his lead-out man is one many years in the making.

"We can be happy we have Bert in the team, me and Bert work really well together [and] we know each other from when we were 12 years old," Merlier revealed to GCN and a small group of journalists.

"We were together in the same class, and then last year we came together in one team. I am happy he is a good lead-out and he is happy I am a good sprinter, I think!"

Between the AlUla Tour and the ongoing UAE Tour, the 31-year-old has won on four of his nine race days so far in 2024, and Thursday afternoon was another textbook example of strong preparation, excellent teamwork and a clinical turn of speed from the boys in blue.

Having initially appeared to have been outwitted by Alpecin-Deceuninck heading into the final bend with 750m to go, Soudal Quick-Step hatched a quick recovery job to manoeuvre Merlier into a position to sprint. Flanked by the likes of Olav Kooij (Visma-Lease a Bike) and Arvid de Kleijn (Tudor Pro Cycling), Merlier was the quickest of the bunch to the line in Dubai Harbour.

At face value, Merlier's win may seem like more of the same from the Belgian and his team, but taking a look under the bonnet, there was more to the sprinter's performance than first meets the eye. It was a tale of preparation and confidence, along with the helping hand of improvisation.

Read more: UAE Tour stage 4 – Tim Merlier doubles up with sprint victory in Dubai

Final corner highlighted by Soudal Quick-Step sports director

Some 90 minutes before the start of Thursday's stage, Soudal Quick-Step sports director Geert Van Bondt was in fine spirits as he discussed the day's plan of action. The stage was expected to be rather vanilla – which turned out to be true – but the final corner was always likely to be the big crux of the day.

"The wind is coming from the right side so if you are on the left side you are going to be more protected so you have to waste less energy. If you're coming from the right side, you're going to have more space but you're going to take a lot of wind," Van Bondt said. "It is always going to be a gamble I think."

Holding their cards close to the chest until the last moment, Alpecin-Deceuninck hid in the pack for much of the final kilometres, before making a beeline for the right-hand bend as it shot into view. In response, Soudal Quick-Step had to choose their line of entry. For that job there was to be no better candidate than Van Lergerghe.

"You just need to have the right person who just can feel it and we have a person in Bert van Lerberghe," Van Bondt said.

"With Bert, he always feels a race, he takes a lot of wind already before [the sprint]. He is maybe not the fastest last guy and he also knows that, but if I see a sprint from Bert, he starts with 2/3km to go and he always feels the moment. He doesn't put his sprinter in the wind"

True to character, Van Lerberghe hatched a plan to make the most of the situation, having originally seen his Soudal Quick-Step unit lose one another amidst the Alpecin-Deceuninck acceleration.

"We were in good position and it's always better here to drop somebody off on a sprinter's wheel and there's always one guy that is going to go too early," Van Lerberghe told GCN a few hundred metres beyond the stage 4 finish.

"Tim is really good with his timing and he did it perfectly."

Fabio Jakobsen can't help but be impressed

Funnily enough, it was not so much perfect timing for Merlier but ample adjustment that gave him the free road to hit out for home.

"I did an acceleration but I was a bit too early," said Merlier, with De Kleijn later noting Merlier's stop-start acceleration in a discussion with GCN. "I tried to wait a bit because there was a little bit of wind coming from the left side. Then I saw Olav [Kooij] surprise us, but luckily I could make it on the wheel and go over him."

Using his physicality to nudge ahead of De Kleijn on the home straight, Merlier was able to slingshot from Kooij and make his charge for the line. Posting up to celebrate as he crossed the line, Merlier could bask in the moment that had begun with Van Bondt's astute preparation before the stage and ended with the Belgian in the sprint.

As for the rest of the sprint field, they could only look on in awe as Merlier outclassed the plethora of world-class finishers gathered at what Van Bondt called the "World Championships of sprinters."

"I think Merlier is outstanding at this moment, he seems to be in good shape," Fabio Jakobsen (dsm-firmenich PostNL), sixth-place finisher on the day, told GCN after the finish.

As to whether Merlier can be beaten between here and the race end on Sunday, Jakobsen kept his cards reasonably close to his chest but cast a small smile as he chose to stay optimistic.

"We will see, ah, there are 14 other sprinters here, someone has to do it!"

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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