Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) defended his yellow jersey once again on Saturday as Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) won stage 8 of the Tour de Suisse.
Chaves escaped on the final ascent of the 219.1km stage from Delémont to Verbier to take the victory ahead of Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin). But none of the contenders for the overall were able to find a chink in Martin’s armor, and the time-trial specialist held onto the race lead with only Sunday’s finale between him and the title.
“This is my most important victory,” said Chaves. “It’s my first WorldTour win. It comes at a really important race. Everyone here has the legs for the Tour de France. I don’t have the words for what this means to me.”
The stage was the longest of the Swiss tour, with two climbs at the end — a category-3 at 205.7km and a beyond-category grind to the finish.
With 30km remaining a break including Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar); Christian Knees (Sky); Danilo Wyss (BMC Racing); Laurens De Vreese (Wanty-Groupe Gobert); Sébastien Minard (Ag2r La Mondiale); Gregory Rast (Trek Factory Racing); Nathan Brown (Garmin-Sharp); and Mateusz Taciak (CCC Polsat Polkowice) had more than four minutes on the peloton.
Ten kilometers later the chase had slashed a minute from their advantage, with first Lampre-Merida and then Tinkoff-Saxo on the front. Race leader Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was in the bunch, but with only a 28-second cushion over Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Shimano) and 1:05 over Rui Costa (Lampre).
As Rast faded out of the break Wyss and Rojas attacked it with with 14km to go. Behind, Giant-Shimano began contributing to the chase. De Vreese fought back up to the two leaders, but it was looking like a lost cause as the peloton ramped up the pursuit.
Knees also made it back to the leaders and tried to scoot past, but it was nothing doing. Then Brown tried the same thing, briefly escaping with Wyss, only to see the BMC man leave him behind on the lower slopes of the final climb.
Mountains leader Bjorn Thurau (Europcar) had a go out of the chase with 7.4km to go as IAM Cycling set the pace. Martin stayed cool, sitting near the front as the bunch picked up remnants of the original breakaway.
Jay Robert Thomson MTB-Qhubeka) was next to attack the peloton, riding up to Thurau with 6km to go. Wyss remained out front, but only just — with 5km to go the Thompson-Thurau chase was 20 seconds back while the GC group was just over a half-minute down and closing, Martin sitting in second wheel.
It was all coming back together with 4km to go. The bunch overhauled Wyss and his two chasers and Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) took the point with Martin right behind. Then Tinkoff assumed control again.
Matthias Frank (IAM) had a go that went nowhere, though the change in pace seemed to finally take some of the snap out of the race leader’s legs.
Then Kreuziger took charge, punching a huge gear up the hill, only to see Chaves slip away with Davide Formolo (Cannondale).
Formolo couldn’t match the pace of Chaves, and the chase fell to Kreuziger and Mollema. Martin was gutting it out, fighting to hold onto his yellow jersey.
“I increased the pace in front of the favorites’ group after Oliver Zaugg had done a great effort. We slowed down a bit and Chaves attacked,” said Kreuziger. “He got a bit too big a gap for me and Mollema to catch him again but for me this was a very positive day.”
Under the red kite it was clear Chaves would not be caught. He took the stage as Kreuziger and Mollema crossed second and third. Seventeen seconds later Martin hit the line in seventh, saving his jersey for the final stage, and even taking some additional advantage over second-placed Dumoulin, who now sits 51 seconds down. Costa remains third at 1:05.
“It was a hard, fast stage,” said Martin. “The final climb to Verbier didn’t surprise. I did it already in 2009 at the Tour de France. I knew that it was steep, but that I could handle it.
“I was aware of the guys I had to stay with. I tried to stay with them asbest I could, and stay in control as much as I could. I think I handled it well.”
Sunday’s finale is a tough 156.5km leg between Martigny and Saas-Fee, with one category-2 climb, two cat.-1s and another beyond-category finish.