LE PUY-EN-VELAY, France (VN) — Dan Martin is on a quest for seconds at this year’s Tour de France.
Quick-Step’s Irishman launched a sneaky attack in the closing kilometers of Sunday’s stage 15 into Le Puy-En-Velay, sprinting away from his rivals after they crested the Côte de Saint-Vidal, a small climb on the outskirts of town. Martin rode by himself for several kilometers before joining a group of riders from the day’s sizable breakaway; after working with breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) to stretch out the gap Martin then drove the group to the finish line.
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When Chris Froome (Sky) and the other favorites sprinted across the line, Martin had taken back 14 seconds. He now sits fifth-place overall. With Sunday’s effort, he moved ahead of Froome’s teammate Mikel Landa. Martin is 43 seconds behind third, and his gap to the final step on the podium is now just 49 seconds.
After the stage, Martin said the close battle for GC — the top four riders all sit within one minute — has opened doors for him.
“There are so many GC guys who are looking at each other — I’m far enough back that they’re not looking at me,” Martin said. “I seem to have been nipping away time every day this week.”
Indeed Martin launched a similar move in the waning meters of Friday’s stage 13 into Foix. After being dropped on the final ascent of the Mur de Peguère, Martin caught onto the field of contenders as they crested the mountaintop and headed toward the downhill. He then attacked and built a small gap on the descent alongside Simon Yates (Orica-Scott). By the time the favorites finished, Martin had taken back nine seconds.
The attacks even caught Froome’s attention, who called Martin “a smart racer” after Sunday’s finish.
Martin has trailed Froome by more than a minute since stage 9 when he crashed on the descent of Mont du Chat. Richie Porte (BMC) slid off of the road in a high-speed corner, and then tumbled into Martin’s bike. The impact sent the Irishman flying to the tarmac. He remounted his bicycle and gave chase, yet after crashing once more due to damaged brakes, Martin limped home 1:17 behind the leaders.
The impact also injured Martin’s back. He has been unable to ride out of the saddle since the pileup, and has appeared to be in pain on multiple occasions. A video clip from after stage 13 showed him struggling to stand upright after dismounting the bicycle.
Martin’s back is beginning to heal. After stage 15 he told reporters he felt “90 to 95 percent” on his attack to the finish.
“It’s a million times better after that video was taken — we made a lot of progress,” Martin said. “We were able to straighten me out so I looked like less of an old man and more like a 30-year old.”
Quick-Step sport director Brian Holm said Martin’s speedy recovery has caught everyone by surprise. He expected the Irishman to lose a minute in the Pyrénées because of the injury. Instead, Martin has made up time.
“Most guys would probably end up in the hospital for a few weeks after that crash,” Holm said. “He has survived and now gets better.”
Martin’s quixotic quest for small gaps may appear foolish. The Tour’s tight GC battle is likely to open up once the peloton climbs into the Alps on Wednesday. Yet his efforts to win back seconds are rooted in experience. In 2016 he was on the losing end of tiny gaps at stage races. Martin finished third at the 2016 Volta a Catalonia, just 17 seconds from the win. Later that year Martin was again third at the Critérium du Dauphiné; just seven seconds from second place and 19 seconds from the victory. Martin then finished ninth place at the Tour last year; yet seventh place was just six seconds away.
“It’s always about seconds with us, so we prepared for that,” Holm said. “Our goal started with being on the podium, I still think we can aim for that.”