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Martin wisely exploits opening at Catalunya

Valverde crash opens door for Martin to take GC lead, but time bonuses and wide-open racing awaits in Catalunya

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LEON, Spain (VN) — Sometimes the cycling gods giveth, and sometimes they taketh away.

Garmin-Sharp rider Daniel Martin lived both extremes of cycling’s crude justice over the past two days at the Volta a Catalunya. In Wednesday’s first of two mountain stages, Martin’s tank was empty and the Irishman couldn’t follow the winning moves.

Some 24 hours later, the 26-year-old was celebrating the doblete with a stage victory and a surge into the overall leader’s jersey.

With Movistar and Sky set to duel up the final “especial” 14km climb on the Port Ainé, Martin’s success was highly unexpected.

“I am more surprised than anyone,” Martin said after the stage. “Winning out of a long breakaway is never easy. After having a bad day [Wednesday], I just gave everything. I never expected to take the lead.”

A few things stacked up in his favor and he coolly exploited them to his advantage.

Martin, Hesjedal make the breakaway

First off, he wisely snuck into the day’s main breakaway. With 23 riders and nearly all the major teams represented, Martin was the best placed, at ninth overall and 30 seconds back.

Martin rode comfortably in the group without taking too many pulls in the 217km, six-climb stage thanks to the presence of Garmin teammate and reigning Giro d’Italia champion Ryder Hesjedal.

“I had Ryder in the break with me. This victory is really thanks to him, because he was pulling for me all day and I really didn’t have to take any pulls at all in the group,” Martin said. “He’s the Giro champion and he’s stronger than me. To have him pull for me made the difference later.”

Valverde crashes out of Catalunya

Second and most important was the crash involving overnight leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), which came at about the halfway point of the race.

Movistar was keeping the breakaway on a short leash of 2:30 when disaster struck.

Valverde and Movistar teammate Eros Capecchi slid out on gravel on a steep, technical descent off an unrated climb at about 120km. Both later abandoned, but in a gesture of solidarity, the pack, led by Sky and Katusha, eased up on the gas to wait to see if Valverde could regain contact.

That was in sharp contrast to last year’s Vuelta a España, when Sky and Katusha pushed gas pedal when Valverde crashed while wearing the leader’s jersey under very different circumstances.

Meanwhile, as the pack slowed the chase, the gap to the leading breakaway expanded again to more than four minutes.

Martin admitted that his double dose of success came thanks in part to Valverde’s bad luck.

“Suddenly we had two minutes extra. I needed those two extra minutes,” Martin said. “I hate to think I took the jersey because he crashed, that’s not how I want to take it. I hope he’s ok.”

Valverde was not seriously injured, but his untimely crash was key to Martin’s unlikely breakaway success.

The early exit of Valverde and key helper Capecchi completely derailed Movistar’s strategy. Rather than riding to defend Valverde’s leader’s jersey, the team readjusted to try and position Wednesday’s stage winner Nairo Quintana, who started sixth, at 26 seconds back.

Valverde’s crash also put pressure on Sky to take control of the race, a shift that would later play out in the closing kilometers. By the time Martin hit the final 14km climb, it was a battle of attrition.

Fighting to the finish with no time checks

Martin fought all the way to the line, defending a one-minute gap to the top GC contenders until Quintana and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) surged in the final 3km.

“I know I was going pretty slow in those last two kilometers,” Martin said. “At first, I was only thinking about the stage. My last time check came with 5km to go. I didn’t start banking on the win until 100 meters to go.”

Going up the final climb, Sky lined it up for Bradley Wiggins, who started the day second, at four seconds back. Dario Cataldo and Rigoberto Urán set a steady pace, but Martin had the legs to defend his gap.

Many expected Sky to rail it home to set up Wiggins, but Martin stubbornly held on and Wiggins ended up losing ground, dropping to fourth when he was unable to react to the late attacks by Quintana and Rodríguez.

There was no finish-line reaction from Wiggins, but Sky director Marcus Ljungqvist said the Valverde crash changed the dynamics of the stage.

“Valverde crashed out and it was then up to us to take control. We slowed down for Valverde, so the breakaway got more time — nearly 4:30 — but we managed to bring it back to about 1:20,” Ljungqvist said. “But then Martin rode so well on the last climb and we couldn’t catch him. It is going to be difficult to challenge for the general classification, but second place is still up for grabs. The race is not over and we are not giving up.”

Hesjedal, making his season debut at the Catalunya tour, told Spanish website that the plan was to break up the race and defend Martin’s winning tactic.

“It could be true that we benefited from Valverde’s crash, but we didn’t know what was going on behind us,” Hesjedal said. “We kept racing the same and Valverde’s crash doesn’t make us feel any less proud of the work Martin and I did. We weren’t afraid to go for it.”

When the dust settled along the snow-lined race route, Martin had enough in the tank to hold off a fast-charging Rodríguez by 36 seconds.

Martin enters the final three days of racing holding a slender, 10-second lead over Rodríguez, with 32 seconds over Quintana and 36 over Wiggins.

“I was surprised by Martin,” Rodríguez said. “The differences are still small. There are three more stages. Anything could happen.”

Another factor could come into play in the closing days. Finish-line bonuses of 10 seconds for the winner will be back in contention in the final three stages. The bonuses were not applied Wednesday and Thursday, but will be in play on the hilltop finale at Montjuic in Rodríguez’s hometown of Barcelona on Sunday.

As Rodríguez said, and Thursday’s stage confirmed yet again, anything can happen in cycling.