The confusion that surrounded the sprinting hierarchy at Soudal-QuickStep in 2022 threatened to repeat itself with the arrival of Tim Merlier for 2023 but the Belgian has played down any notion of a rivalry with Fabio Jakobsen and so effectively ruled himself out of Tour de France contention.
Last year, Jakobsen suggested he was first in line for Tour selection before being contradicted by team boss Patrick Lefevere, and Cavendish was still publicly making his case for inclusion a week before the start of the race. Jakobsen eventually secured selection and won stage 2 to Nyborg.
Merlier, who won a stage at both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in 2021, has effectively replaced Cavendish, once again giving the Belgian team two top-level sprinters in the stable.
While Jakobsen - perhaps eager to avoid a repeat of last year - insisted that all races were up for grabs, Merlier himself appears to have contented himself to playing second fiddle in the sprints, at least in the Grand Tour stakes.
There will be no room for a sprinter on a Giro d'Italia squad led by world champion Remco Evenepoel , leaving Merlier with the Vuelta a España, if Jakobsen does, as expected, returns to the Tour.
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"Normally it will be the Vuelta. But I'm focused on the beginning of the season and not only thinking about the Vuelta," Merlier told Cyclingnews .
"I've won already in the Giro and I've won already in the Tour. I can live with that, if it's the Vuelta again. I haven't won there yet, so I'm happy to go back to make that happen."
As for returning to the Tour, Merlier says he wants to "try it for for next year" but is aware that, even if he get on terms with Jakobsen, it's likely that Evenepoel will be targeting the yellow jersey in 2024.
That said, Merlier, now 30, doesn't see himself as a pure Grand Tour sprinter. He has won in the Giro and Tour but 14 of his 23 career victories have come in one-day races - largely semi-classics in Belgium - and his background lies in cyclo-cross.
"For me, I love more the one-day races, the Classics, than the Grand Tours, even if the Grand Tours are also very important," Merlier said.
"I live in Flanders, close to the parcours of the big races in Belgium - that's one of the reasons I love the one-day races.
"I think I'm stronger after a hard race, than the simple Grand Tour sprint days. Mostly my best sprinters are when everyone is a bit tired. But then again, in the Giro and Tour I won the opening sprint stages."
Merlier might have a stronger case when it comes to rivalling Jakobsen for the sprinting spot in Soudal-QuickStep's evergreen Classics line-up.
As it stands, Jakobsen will return to defend his title at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and lead in the pan-flat Classic Brugge-De Panne, but Merlier seems set for a couple of the more complicated races, with returns to scenes of former glories at Nokere Koerse and Koksijde Classic possibly leading to bigger things at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Whatever his eventual programme, which will start with the Tour of Oman and UAE Tour, Merlier believes he's better placed for sprinting success at QuickStep than at Alpecin-Deceuninck.
"They showed already that they can make a sprinter even better," he said, noting the rich veins of form enjoyed at the team by the likes of Cavendish, Elia Viviani, Fernando Gaviria, and Marcel Kittel.
"I hope to have the same for me. That was one of the reasons I wanted to come to the team, because they have that history with sprinters.
"They show they take care of the sprinters. I'm very much looking forward to doing my first sprints with the team."
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