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CACERES, Spain (VN) — Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) knew he had no chance of winning Thursday’s sixth stage at the Vuelta a España.
With an undulating profile in a Vuelta filled with mountains, it was one of the few chances the sprinters have during this Spanish tour.
Yet there he was, alone, off the front, all day. It was the perfect training day for his major objective in late September: defense of his time trial world championship.
“It was planned to attack at the start, to get into a breakaway, and to keep my teammates from working to set up the sprint for [Gianni] Meersman,” Martin said. “I thought two or three riders would come with me, but nobody could follow me.”
It was one against many. Martin bolted clear even before Vuelta race director Javier Guillén dropped the race flag to start the 175-kilometer rolling stage across Extremadura. There were a few groans in the peloton, and the pace immediately lit up. Breakaways are the currency of half the teams in this Vuelta, but everyone had just missed the train.
The locomotive was Martin, and he had just bolted out of the station. The 28-year-old German is known as “der Panzerwagen,” which literally translates to tank, but just as easily could stand for badass, and he proved yet again he has one of the most potent engines in the bunch.
Marco Pinotti (BMC Racing), another time trial specialist, tried in vain to bridge out. It would have been a thing of beauty to have them both out there, toiling under the Spanish sun like a pair of campesinos, but Martin would have none of it. He turned the screws, and cranked the pedals, and no one could close the gap.
Martin poured it on, churning his huge thighs to open up a seven-minute gap to the peloton by kilometer 27. If Orica-GreenEdge had not taken some control of the chase, he would have just kept on trucking.
Martin rode alone across the barren landscape of Extremadura, using the stage as an intense training ride for the upcoming worlds. The flat course in Tuscany featured in next month’s world championships is perfect for Martin to win his third straight rainbow jersey, and he’s using the Vuelta to sharpen his form.
Perhaps more than ever, he will be facing some tough competition. Sir Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Pinotti and Taylor Phinney (both BMC), and four-time champ Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) will all be showing up to win.
Just as it does for the road race, the ideal preparation for the worlds goes through the Vuelta. Martin has raced the past two Vueltas, pulling out early each time, only to go on to win the rainbow jersey. That’s exactly what his plan is ahead of what he hopes will be a treble.
“It’s a good course for me in Italy,” Martin said. “It’s a power course. It’s not technical and little climbing. Of course I want to win again.”
Thursday’s long-distance training session suddenly became very interesting in the final kilometers. With 25km to go, Martin was on a short leash of under two minutes, an easy gap to erase when it’s one against many.
But Martin has the engine of many, and it came down to the wire in a thrilling showdown between the sprinters and the legs of one man.
Martin wasn’t giving up easily, and with 6km to go, he still had 12 seconds. Argos-Shimano and Orica were desperately chasing, but Omega Pharma, which still had Meersman in its quiver, was doing its best to clog up the peloton.
In the end, it was a last-gasp surge by none other than Cancellara, who charged out of the peloton in a desperate bid to win, that seemed to spoil Martin’s chances for victory.
He was caught within 15 meters of the line.
“I never believed I would be so close to victory. I only escaped to help my team and to test my form before the worlds,” Martin said. “I kept fighting without thinking of anything else; until the final kilometers I never thought I would win. If it had been a little flatter in the end, I would have won, but at least it was fun for the fans.”
Martin wasn’t surprised to hear that it was Cancellara — the four-time world TT champion who is arguably his biggest rival for rainbow — who pulled him back.
“Ah, was it Fabian pulling behind? Well, as I often say, the boomerang always comes back,” said Martin.
Michael Morkov used the big Swiss time machine as the perfect leadout to give Saxo-Tinkoff its second win in six stages of this Vuelta, with Cancellara taking third. A cross-eyed Martin, who started to believe in the impossible, crossed the line seventh.
No one was more surprised than Morkov.
“It was strange. I’ve never even raced in a mass sprint before, but because we don’t have a sprinter, I gave it a try,” said Morkov, a strong track rider. “I got on Cancellara’s wheel and I didn’t even know when to accelerate. I thought I had measured it wrong, but I had a tailwind, and that helped me to win.”
There were no shakeups in the overall standings as race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Chris Horner (RadioShack) could sit back and marvel at Martin’s exhibition.
Martin the machine
If there were ever any doubt over the size of Martin’s ambition, look no further at what happened in the opening weekend at the 2013 Tour de France.
Just over a month ago, Martin was battered and bruised, suffering tremendous contusions, cuts, and scrapes all over his back, buttocks, and legs in a horrible crash on Corsica to open the Tour. Incredibly, he started the next day, blood and puss seeping through his jersey.
Little more than a week later, he pipped Chris Froome (Sky) to win the windy, challenging time trial at Mont-Saint-Michel.
Flash forward to the Vuelta, and Omega Pharma was out for revenge in the opening-day team time trial, keen to make up for the narrow loss to Orica at the Tour’s TTT.
It wasn’t meant to be, as Astana had a much deeper team than Omega Pharma’s mixed bag, but Martin gave it all, collapsing on the ground after the extreme effort.
“I am here to prepare for the worlds, and to try to win the time trial,” Martin said. “Even though this Vuelta is hard, it is still very good preparation for the worlds.”
Martin got a week’s worth of training out of his amazing performance Thursday, and proved once again that attacking riders should never give up until they’re finally caught.
The stage was 175km long. Martin led for all but about 30 feet of it.
Sometimes the results sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.