Will the hierarchy hold? Merlier masters a messy sprint in the first battle of the fastmen at the Giro d'Italia

Both stage winner Tim Merlier and runner-up Jonathan Milan looked a cut above the other sprinters on stage three but with so many contenders in the mix, can they dominate the upcoming sprints in the Giro?

For all the unexpected action during today’s Giro d'Italia stage, from a mid-stage split that saw a group of sprinters spend about 40km ahead of the peloton, to a late attack from Tadej Pogačar that threatened to steal the stage from under the sprinters’ noses, stage three ultimately ended with perhaps the most predictable outcome: the in-form sprinter winning in a bunch finish. Tim Merlier (Soudal–Quick-Step) claimed his eighth victory of the season, picking up where he left off from the Belgian semi-Classics campaign (during which he won Scheldeprijs and Nokere Koerse) and the Middle East stage races (where he won twice at the Alula Tour and three times at the UAE Tour) earlier in the year to solidify his status as fastest finisher in the peloton this year.

It was a triumphant return to Grand Tour racing for Merlier, and a convincing argument that the Belgian ought really to have been picked for more over the last few years. Despite winning at both the Tour and Giro in 2021 while at Alpecin-Deceuninck, he has not ridden any Grand Tours since 2022, his Soudal–Quick-Step team declining to select him for any during his debut season for the team last year. With Remco Evenepoel skipping the Giro to focus on the Tour, and the team’s former lead sprinter Fabio Jakobsen having left, the path was clear for Merlier to lead the team, and he duly delivered.

Merlier took the victory, but it was hardly at a canter, in a sprint that was characterised by just how close it was. Riders were spread out all across the road at the finish line, with no less than four riders finishing within a bike length of the winner. While that was partly down to how messy the sprint was, with no team managing to take control and the panic following Pogačar’s attack, it could also be a sign that the sprints this year will be wide-open, what with the sheer number of elite sprinters taking part, and the lack of an outstanding candidate clearly superior to the rest.  

Closest to Merlier was Jonathan Milan (Lidl-Trek), who was only fractionally edged out by the Belgian over on the other side of the road. The defending maglia ciclamino champion certainly looked very strong in the sprint, launching early and retaining his power, but spent much of the final few hundred metres with his nose to wind — energy expenditure which might have cost him victory, and if he’d had a clean run-in, victory may well have been his instead. It’s also worth remembering that all of Merlier’s stage wins at Grand Tours have come in the first bunch sprint, and that he has on those occasions weakened as the race has gone. He might have been the strongest today, but can he maintain those standards in the upcoming bunch sprints and continue to hold off Milan?

Finishing next behind Merlier and Milan was Biniam Girmay (Intermarché - Wanty), in what was a heartening return to the kind of form that saw him cause a sensation and win a stage at the Giro two years ago. It was a typical Girmay sprint, smartly following wheels and never over-committing, in a manner that though never looking like he would win the stage, ensured a high finish. Winning a straightforward drag race like this will be difficult for him against the pure sprinters, but the results shows he's a real candidate for the points classification, and will stand a great chance of winning stages in the upcoming sprint finishes that are preceded by trickier hills. 

Giro d'Italia 2024 stage 3

For all the illustrious names on the start list, the next two places were claimed by surprise names. In fourth was Jenthe Biermans, a 28-year-old for whom this was only the second time ever inside the top 20 of a Grand Tour stage, while 21-year-old talent Tobias Lund Andresen was fifth, the man he was supposedly leading out, DSM-Firmenich PostNL teammate Fabio Jakobsen, nowhere to be seen.

Jakobsen would have hoped to reannounce himself as a leading Grand Tour sprinter after spending 2023 in the doldrums, especially after some promising signs of form in the races leading up to the Giro, but instead was distanced before the sprint, arriving 2:47 after the peloton. Although results like a stage win at the Tour of Turkey and second at Nokere Koerse earlier this sprint showed great promise, he’ll need to have strong climbing legs too in order to be in contention for many of the bunch sprints at the Giro, considering the amount of stages that contain late hills to make their lives difficult. His fellow former sprinting master Caleb Ewan (Jayco-Alula) fared better in the sense that he was in a position to make a sprint, but was a long way off his top speed, and only managed an underwhelming 13th place. Both riders still seem a long way from making a fully-fledged return to their past glories.

As for the rest, Grand Tour debutant Olav Kooij (Visma-Lease a Bike) might have been disappointed by not managing to match the speed of Merlier and Milan, but his sixth-place does come with the caveat that he had to check his sprint. If he can get a clear run, he looks a strong candidate for a stage win. And despite Alpecin-Decuninck’s great show of faith in Kaden Groves, he could only manage 12th place in the final sprint. The Belgian team have been prominent in the peloton, leading him out for the intermediate sprints during stage one, and their strength in numbers was reflected in the fact that they were the team best represented in the group of sprinters that accidentally escaped up the road after an intermediate sprint, with three domestiques joining Groves.

Despite the initial sense that this split might have had a big impact come the final sprint, none of those involved seemed too fatigued by their efforts once the race all came back together 43km from the finish — tellingly, five of the top six at the stage finish were all a part of the escape group. Merlier himself said at the end that he didn't like the situation, and actually tried to slow down the group, wary of other teams like Alpecin-Deceuninck and Intermarché - Wanty who had more representation there. Still, even though the group was brought back, it was an unusually messy sprint in the finale, where teams had to worry primarily about bringing Pogačar and Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) back before concentrating on their lead-outs. A hierarchy appears to have formed, but will that hold in the upcoming sprints? We should find out tomorrow for what looks set to be another day for the sprinters’ in Andora.

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