Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) stepped off the bike on stage 9 of the Tour de France after the tail end of the race disappeared up the road, with even a stage win on his debut Tour providing little consolation for the Belgian.
“It feels more like I didn't get my high school diploma,” Merlier told Dutch website Wielerflits in an interview after his withdrawal. “Finishing the Tour is something I absolutely wanted, but was unable to finish. Fair? I'm even a little embarrassed. I don't get emotional easily, but today I did shed a tear. I wanted to make it to Paris. Sprinting on the Champs-Elysées."
The 28-year-old, who was sharing the sprint and lead-out duties at the Tour with teammate Jasper Philipsen, also left the Giro d’Italia early, with fatigue kicking in on the first time in his career that he had raced for 10 consecutive days.
“With Jasper in the team, I know there wouldn't be many more chances, but a second stage win was really still a goal,” Merlier added. “You know, this is one of the first times in my career that I'm leaving a race like this. In the Giro I also gave up, but that was mainly as a precaution. This is a different story.”
Merlier, who won stage 3 of the Tour de France in Pontivy, said he felt “mentally broken” after his withdrawal during the wet 145 kilometre stage 9, which saw the peloton tackle five classified climbs.
“It just went too fast,” said Merlier. “I'm in good shape, I think. Proof of this is that I set a personal record today, among other things. But after an hour and a half the legs started to drain. I could no longer follow the grupetto. I didn't want to give up and still try to make it to the finish, but the peloton rode so far away that another mental blow followed. It made no sense anymore.
“The time cut caused a lot of stress and a higher pace in the grupetto today. At a certain moment, I was empty, and I couldn’t follow the tempo any longer. I tried to go on as long as possible, hoping to catch someone downhill, but I realized it was a mission impossible when I saw the grupetto riding too far ahead of me.
"It just went too fast. I am conditionally fine, I think. Proof of that is that today, among other things, I set a personal record. But after an hour and a half the legs started to run empty. I couldn't follow the grupetto anymore."
"I improved my 20-minute record today, in terms of wattages. I also set my second best hour record and my third best 90-minute record. That, of course, indicates that there was serious racing. The group with guys like Cavendish, Démare, I was in at first. But I couldn't hold it."
Merlier was far from the only rider to have found the going tough on stage 9, with a number struggling to get to the finish line at Tignes within 37:20 of stage winner Ben O’Connor (AG2R Citroën). Points leader Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was emotional after making it with 1:32 to spare, while others such as André Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Greg Van Avermaet (AG2R Citroën) cut it even finer. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) fell on the wrong side of the cut, along with six other riders, while Nans Peters (AG2R Citroën) and Jasper De Buyst (Lotto Soudal) also abandoned during the stage.
The experience, as challenging as it was, wasn’t enough to dent Merlier’s enthusiasm for the race completely.
When asked by Wielerflits if he wanted to come back the reply was: "Absolutely! I want to prove that I can do this. But during my debut in the Tour I hit my limits. And that is painful.”
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