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There’s always a plan or a message behind Patrick Lefevere’s weekend column in Het Nieuwsblad, and last Saturday’s musings were no exception with the veteran team boss penning, or rather dictating, a piece about his inability to house three world-class sprinters for next season.
As we know, Fabio Jakobsen is already locked in with a deal for 2023, and if the rumors are true, then Tim Merlier is on his way from Alpecin Fenix.
That leaves Mark Cavendish, who is out of contract at the end of the year, in a slightly awkward position. There’s no doubt that the British sprinter is still at a world-class level, having rediscovered his best form in years in 2021, and carrying that through to the present day.
Lefevere was quick to distance himself from the links to Merlier stating: “I read all over the internet this week that Tim Merlier has signed a contract with our team. It is journalism today: one medium writes it down – without contacting the team, of course – and everyone else takes it for granted. Then I can glue the chunks. It creates unrest that is unnecessary.”
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There have been rumors of Merlier’s move to Quick-Step for months now.
They go back to 2021 when Elia Viviani apparently turned down a one-year deal to sign for Quick-Step because he wanted greater long-term security.
According to sources, the reason the Italian was only offered a short-term contract was because Merlier was already on his way in for 2023. That doesn’t chime with Lefevere’s comments but it can’t be completely discounted given that we know there was interest in Viviani and he eventually signed a three-year deal at Ineos.
“Everyone is already putting the puzzle together for me: Merlier in means Cavendish out. That makes the current situation very disrespectful towards Mark. I made an agreement with him to wait for the Giro before talking about the future. On Wednesday I will meet with his management, Thursday I will see him personally in Italy. Everyone tells me that Mark races around motivated, his results in the Giro also prove it. It is very annoying that he has to read such things,” Lefevere added.
Lefevere did at least confirm that he was in negotiations with Merlier’s management but when he sits down with Cavendish’s new representatives this week the discussion will obviously turn towards money and race programmes.
Merlier’s shadow, whether real or not, will loom large over the negotiations as Lefevere plays transfer tactics.
Lefevere is no fool, certainly not when it comes to reading the transfer market and using the press to lower or increase the value of a rider’s interest. He once, apparently, made intentions to sign a French sprinter from FDJ only to drive up the price to ensure that another team — also French — paid well over the odds for the rider’s services.
“The assumption that everyone makes is correct in itself: you can never have three world-class sprinters in one team. So Fabio Jakobsen and Cavendish and Merlier together in the team is not an option,” he added.
“That’s looking for trouble. What is possible is that we supplement two top sprinters with a young talent. As we put the ‘unknown’ Fabio Jakobsen next to Elia Viviani and Fernando Gaviria in 2018. Then you have a hierarchy and you don’t get conflicts about competition programs.”
The main question here is what possible outcome Lefevere is hoping for.
With Jakobsen and a formidable leadout train already set for 2023 the Belgian team boss can afford to wait and see how the market develops. He can, and has had, three top-level sprinters in one team. Remember, he had Cavendish, Bennett, and Jakobsen last year, and in 2019 he had Viviani, Jakobsen and Hodeg, who might not be world-class but still one nine races that season.
The season before that he had Hodeg, Viviani, Jakobsen and Gavira. If there’s budget, then there’s always room.
And that’s what it ultimately comes down to. Budget.
Lefevere is clearly using his influence and media exposure to influence the direction of the market. Time is on his side in this regard as Cavendish would surely love to stay at a team with such riches when it comes to support and leadouts, but the fact that the British rider has brought in a new and experienced rider agent does suggest that he knows he needs to consider his options and that there are no guarantees of a contract extension.
Even if Merlier has signed it doesn’t spell the end for Cavendish at Quick-Step, but it certainly makes the chances of him re-signing seem all the harder.