The Tour de France is back in the hands of the sprinters as the peloton takes on stage 6 from Tours to Châteauroux on Wednesday, with a host of fast men set to vie for victory at the end of the 160-kilometre stage.
Most of the major sprint teams have one main sprinter to support during this Tour – which still has a possible six sprint finishes still to go – though one squad is notably bucking that trend so far. Alpecin-Fenix‘s strategy sees them switching sprint leadership duties between Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen, all while team leader and maillot jaune Mathieu van der Poel takes his own chances.
So far, their debut outing at the Tour has been a great success for the Belgian squad, with Merlier winning on stage 3 and Van der Poel still in yellow after taking victory on the Mûr-de-Bretagne on day two. Philipsen, meanwhile, took third place behind Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in Fougères two days ago.
The sprinter switching strategy is not a unique one – Trek-Segafredo used Edward Theuns, Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven last year and are doing so again here – but it does mean the Alpecin-Fenix pair are experiencing a different race to the likes of Cavendish or Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan.
“When I wake up, I don’t know if I get to sprint in the afternoon,” Merlier said in an interview with Belgian press outlets including Het Laatste Nieuws on Wednesday. “The decision is communicated by team management during the meeting in the team bus.”
Philipsen is, according to Jonas Rickaert in an interview with Sporza, the choice for stage 5, and that pick was something he may have cottoned on to at dinner last night, Philipsen said.
“Based on the atmosphere at the dinner and the way [team co-manager] Christoph Roodhooft talks to me – the style, the little words – I usually already feel how he wants to handle the next day.
“We have to give everyone their chance. That’s good for the atmosphere.”
Philipsen, who joined the team this year and has three wins to his name, including Scheldeprijs, admitted, however, that the situation is not ideal. He is not irritated or unhappy with sharing leadership with Merlier, though admitted that it’s not why he signed with the team.
“It’s a difficult situation. It’s never fun when you go to the Tour with two sprinters,” he said, referring to his experience of riding alongside Alexander Kristoff at the 2019 Tour. “I’m a sprinter and we always want to sprint for ourselves, but Tim is also riding a very strong season.
“[Sharing sprint leadership] is not my ambition either, though. It’s not why I signed with this team.”
The partnership has, thus far been a success, with the pair leading out for each other on stages 3 and 4. In Pontivy they avoided the carnage to finish one-two as Van der Poel and Rickaert also finished in the front group, while Merlier worked for Philipsen in Fougères.
“We were the only team who could form a sprint train, so I couldn’t complain,” Philipsen said, despite his fade to third place.
“It was good, but this team is only satisfied with the win. Tim and Mathieu have already won and I’m behind. I hope that I can make up for that one of these days.”
As the team switches leadership on a daily basis, the pair also have to switch between the specialised roles of sprinter and lead-out man and back again. It’s a delicate balance that not many teams would try.
Bora-Hansgrohe left Pascal Ackermannn at home, for example, while Deceuninck-QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevere insisted – before Sam Bennett’s knee injury ruled him out – that a decision on whether to take Cavendish or the Irishman would be an either-or situation rather than the pair co-existing.
“If I do a good lead out for Jasper, he will do the same for me,” said Merlier, who is recovering from knee injuries sustained in the mass crash on stage 1. “If I do a bad lead out then Jasper will get the feeling that I want to ‘patch’ him up and he’ll do the same to me. We’re in a give and take situation.
“Both Jasper and I are not natural lead-out men. I much prefer to sprint for myself. I don’t have to hide this fact.”