By Brecht Decaluwé in Angoulême
In what turned out to be his last realistic chance at a Tour stage win, Axel Merckx (T-Mobile) nearly managed to claim his first ever Tour de France stage win. He sprinted towards a second place behind the unreachable Sandy Casar who started the sprint from first position.
After the finish, Cyclingnews spoke with Merckx when he had recovered from his sprint. "I'm not a sprinter," Merckx laboured an obvious point, "and second is ok, because if I can be honest, Casar was the best. If you can start from the front and nobody can overtake you, then you're simply the best. Nobody could overtake him."
"It was a tough year for me, mentally and physically, and I wanted to give something to the team-mates but it wasn't to be." With ten kilometres to go, Michael Boogerd, another retiring rider, started the final quest for the victory with a predictable attack. With less than five kilometres to go, Laurent Lefevre managed to create a gap, and then it was Casar himself who was left to ride solo in the final kilometres.
"I had to chase very long to get back in the wheels," Merckx said he lost a lot of energy before the sprint. Casar kept going for the solo win but going into the final kilometre, he was brought back by Boogerd, while Merckx and Lefevre joined a little later.
"The last 1,000m, it was everybody on his own, and Sandy Casar was so strong. I was empty and gambled that they would come on his wheel." Nevertheless the Belgian didn't spoil any energy on attacks, and in the final straight, he seemed to be in an ideal third position, behind the caught Casar and Boogerd, to start the sprint. "I was dying in last position, and then we came to the sprint... I am not a sprinter," Merckx smiled. "Anyway, if you can ride like this and still win with such an advantage then he was the strongest."
The Belgian will retire after the Tour de France and is planning to live in Vancouver with his wife Judy and their daughter, so stage 18, with only a time trial and a sprinter's finish on the Champs-Elysees remaining, it was the last time we will see Merckx on the attack in a break.
"I don't know why, but I was happy when I rode to the start. I can't be disappointed, I haven't got the right to be disappointed. It was a nice day," Merckx looked back on his glorious day on French roads.