Haters still disappointed: Merlier matches Milan as the Giro's sprint supremo

The Belgian was head and shoulders above the other sprinters on the final dash to the line in Rome, levelling him with Jonathan Milan on three stage wins in this Giro d'Italia

While there was little doubt from start to finish who the best climber was at this year’s Giro d’Italia, who the best sprinter is a much more debatable topic. Prior to the race, the bunch finishes were being billed as a world cup of sprinters, with a stacked line up of most of the best and brightest from around the world — from established stars such as Fabio Jakobsen (Team DSM-Firmenich-PostNL), Caleb Ewan (Jayco-Alula), Fernando Gaviria (Movistar), to emerging young talents Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Biniam Girmay (Intermarché - Wanty), to exciting Grand Tour debutants Olaj Kooij (Visma-Lease a Bike), Laurence Pithie (Groupama-FDJ),

It’s easy to forget that all of these riders have been present at the Giro, as ultimately the sprint finishes were all about two men: Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek) and Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick-Step). These emerged as the two outstanding sprinters in the field, and together they engaged in one of the best Grand Tour sprinter battles in recent years. Merlier’s victory in Rome on Sunday means he draws level with his Italian rival on three stage wins, meaning this finishes as the first Grand Tour since the 2018 Giro d'Italia that more than one sprinter has won three stages at.

Up until a few days ago it had appeared Milan was in a league of his own, but Merlier enjoyed an outstanding final week in which he dispelled many doubts about him. It was clear from his response to winning stage 18 in Padua, where he delighted in how ”the haters will be disappointed” at his success, that he was riding with a point to prove, a feeling that must surely have been exacerbated after he was relegated from second place for dangerous sprinting on stage 11. It had been observed that Merlier had never before won a stage deeper into a Grand Tour beyond the third stage, and this Giro appeared to be unfolding in a similar manner as he struggled to get himself in the mix for the sprints after his victory on stage three in Fossano.

Given all this, to win not one but two stages in the final week must have felt especially affirming for Merlier. The win in Padua three days ago came just when it appeared Milan was unstoppable in the sprints, on the back of two sprint wins in the second week. And this was also only the second time in his whole career that the 31-year-old has even started a final week of a Grand Tour, so was entering into almost unknown territory. Merlier has been much frustrated in recent years by failing to seal spots on his team’s line-ups at Grand Tours, and hadn’t really had the chance to really show what he could do at this level. His performances this week should put to rest his reputation as a first week merchant, and ought to earn him more Grand Tour selections in the future.

Merlier might have taken victory today in Rome, but the stage might yet be remembered for the astonishing comeback of Milan. Though he didn’t quite manage to pull off the win, the way he fought to get back into contention from seemingly impossible odds made the runner-up finish he did manage to achieve behind Merlier borderline miraculous.

With 9km to go, just as the peloton heard the bell indicating the start of the final lap in the Rome circuit, disaster struck for the Italian as he was halted by a mechanical. A quick change was not forthcoming, and by the time he had a new bike and was up and running, a gap of about one minute had already opened up between himself and the peloton.

It seemed like it was game over in terms of the stage win, but Milan and his Lidl-Trek team did not give up, as he made his way through the cars and the convoy off the back of the peloton to try and get himself back into contention. With 4.5km to go he was back in the peloton, but still had a huge amount to do to get himself back to the front of the group and in contention come the sprint. His teammates buried themselves for him, with a line of four each burying themselves to manoeuvre him back to the front.

Somehow, with just 1.5km left to ride, he was back at the front of the peloton, and in a position to sprint. And just as miraculously, despite the huge effort he’d had to make to get himself there, he still had the legs to mount a sprint finish, even if he was too tired to stay out of the saddle. Ultimately, it took a rival with the speed of Merlier to defeat him; everyone else lay in his wake, and he sealed a second-place that might just have been an even more impressive performance than any of his three wins.

It was a stunning effort for Milan, and demonstrated the kind of raw talent that had made him such a star at this Giro. You still sense that though he and Merlier end the Giro with the same number of stage wins, Milan still comes out of it looking like the better sprinter. After all, it’s he who stood on the podium as victor of the maglia ciclamino, reflecting how consistent he was throughout the race, always putting himself in the mix even for the sprints he didn’t win — overcoming hurdles as seemingly insurmountable as the ill-timed mechanical today.

But while Milan’s consistency is the main factor of the case that he was the best sprinter at the Giro, it should be noted that in their head-to-head tussles, Merlier generally came out on top. Milan placed runner-up four times in this race: and on all but one of those occasions, Merlier was the lone rider he trailed. Merlier’s highest finish other than his three wins was, by contrast, fifth on stage four. The only time Merlier was edged out by Milan was on stage 11, when the Belgian was subsequently disqualified. Merlier’s problem therefore wasn’t out-sprinting Milan; rather, it was getting himself in a position to take him on. When the two arrived at the line in about the same position, it was Merlier almost invariably who proved himself the quickest.

While debate can go on about which of the two is better, there is no doubt that Milan and Merlier were the best sprinters at the Giro. The question now is: are they the best in the world? That title still must belong to Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck), given his exploits at the Tour de France last year. But based on their exceptional form of late, they can surely now give the Belgian a run for his money — a showdown between the three will be hotly anticipated.

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