Merlier wins sprint battle in Paris-Nice opener
Belgian sprinter Tim Merlier won the battle of the fast men to advance to the first round of Paris-Nice on Sunday at La Verriere.
Tadej Pogacar got a bonus on the last climb to get a six-second lead over defending Tour de France champion Jonas Vingegaard, which could be useful in an eight-day race often defined by just a few seconds.
At the end of a winding and hilly 169.4 km course in the Chevreuse Valley west of Paris, Merlier from the Soudal-Quick Step pulled away in the final meters.
Four other sprinters crossed the line shoulder to shoulder a bike distance behind. Irishman Sam Bennett from Bora came in second and Dane Mads Pedersen came in third.
The bonuses mean Merlier leads the overall standings with Bennett and Pogacar four seconds behind.
“I can’t say how great it was,” Merlier said.
This season, he joined Soudal, a team with a sprinting tradition, and started his campaign with a Tour of Oman stage victory followed by three Tour of the United Arab Emirates.
“I’m having a fantastic start to the season, it’s great for me and for the team,” said the 30-year-old Belgian, who will wear the yellow jersey on Monday.
Soudal, a team that specializes in sprints, took control on the run-up.
The two winners of the Tour de France, the Slovenian Pogacar and the Dane Vingegor, actively participated in the last 20 kilometers.
Pogacar attacked on the last two hills and scored extra seconds when he was first on the last.
Wingegaard gave chase but finished in fourth place with no bonus. Momentum carried the two men in the breakaway trio with six kilometers to go, but after talking, the two heavyweights sat down and let the sprinters fight for the win.
“We went for the bonus sprint,” Pogacar told Eurosport after the finish.
“We had a gap, but only two guys worked, that was enough, and even a headwind. So it was obvious that it would be a sprint. I have seen that. I waited in the group and safely crossed the finish line.
The two-time Tour de France champion said he didn’t feel strong at the beginning, “but every hour I felt better.”
There were several accidents in the nervous club during the day.
“It was definitely a tough day,” Merlier said. “A lot of stress in the peloton.”