This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) out-sprinted Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) to win stage 9 of the Tour de France at the end of a gripping day in the Pyrenees that saw serious weaknesses exposed in Sky’s armoury for the first time in the race. Although Chris Froome successfully repelled a concerted Movistar offensive to defend his yellow jersey, he did so in isolation as Richie Porte slid dramatically out of the overall picture by conceding over 18 minutes.
Martin’s Garmin-Sharp squad had vowed to create chaos before the Tour began and they were as good as their word a day after many had feared the race already over as a contest. They set the tone for the stage by launching a volley of attacks on the first climb, the Col de Portet d’Aspet, which scattered the Sky team to the four winds and left Froome with just Porte for company with 140 kilometres still to race.
Worse was to follow for Froome on the second climb, the Col de Menté, where Porte was dropped after he had helped the maillot jaune try and restore some semblance of order to the early anarchy. Froome himself tracked a cheeky attack from Alejandro Valverde on the way down the Menté, showing none of the jitters that did for Luis Ocaña in 1973, but when the dust settled in the valley before the Peyresourde, he was the only Sky rider in a 30-strong yellow jersey group that was now under the control of Movistar.
Chris Froome under pressure today
“It was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on a bike but I’m happy to still be in the yellow jersey,” Froome said afterwards. “Credit is due to the Movistar team who really did a good race and put me under pressure. It was hard to be alone there.”
Movistar’s pace-making ensured that Porte’s flickering revival – he chased at two minutes for more than 50 kilometres – was ultimately snuffed out, and after setting tempo over the Peyresourde and the Col de Val Louron, the scene was set for a twin offensive from Valverde and Nairo Quintana on the final climb, the Hourquette d’Ancizan.
The anticipated Movistar pincer movement never materialised, however, for while the white jersey Quintana launched no fewer than four fierce accelerations on the col, a seemingly untroubled Froome responded smoothly each time, dragging the rest of the overall contenders across with him, including Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin), while Valverde didn’t dare risk an attack of his own.
Indeed, for all his team’s numerical supremacy in the front group, Valverde ultimately failed to make any inroads into the numbers that truly count – while the Spaniard moved up to second overall, he remains 1:25 behind Froome’s yellow jersey. The Belkin duo of Mollema and Ten Dam lie third and fourth, at 1:44 and 1:50 respectively, while Contador stays 1:51 back in sixth place.
The day’s tactical master class was instead delivered by Dan Martin, who cleverly jumped away immediately after Quintana’s first acceleration a little over four kilometres from the summit. When Fuglsang bridged across shortly afterwards, Martin had a willing accomplice and the pair opened up a 50-second lead over the yellow jersey group by the top of the climb.
Martin and Fuglsang collaborated smoothly on the 30-kilometre drop to Bagnères-de-Bigorre and it soon became apparent that they would fight out the stage honours between them. The Irishman successfully marshalled Fuglsang to the front underneath the red kite, refused to bite too soon in the game of cat and mouse that ensued, and then swooped to lead into the final left-hand bend and comfortably take the sprint for stage victory.
Fuglsang leads Martin
“I knew the last 30 kilometres quite well,” said Martin, whose first major professional success came at the Route du Sud five years ago. “I was lucky Jakob came with me because I don’t think one guy would have survived out there alone. But it was a great team effort all day, the guys went on the attack from the start and I had to finish it off in the end.”
Martin closed a twenty-one year gap to become the fifth Irishman to win a stage of the Tour de France and his triumph comes fifty years after the late Shay Elliott took a pioneering stage victory in Roubaix in 1963. Monday morning’s headlines will doubtless make copious reference to his uncle, Stephen Roche, but in truth, Martin should be applauded on his own merits. A consistent peformer on the international stage right back to his amateur days at VC La Pomme, the 26-year-old has come into his own this year as the winner of the Volta a Catalunya and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“I was quite confident that I would be quicker than Jakob in the sprint and I think that confidence has come from the wins earlier this year,” Martin said.
Garmin chaos causes Porte problems
While it might be facetious to say that there was more drama in Sunday’s stage than in the entirety of last year’s Tour, there was certainly a commitment to attacking the yellow jersey that was wholly absent twelve months ago. Garmin-Sharp’s tactics were clear from the outset, with David Millar, Tom Danielson, Ryder Hesjedal and Martin all hurling themselves on the offensive on the first climb of the Portet d’Aspet, where Arnaud Jeannesson (FDJ) led over the summit.
Danielson continued his effort on the Col de Menté (44km), where he led Hesjedal, Yuri Trofimov (Katusha) and Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) over the top while the composition of the yellow jersey group ebbed and flowed 25 seconds down the road. When the dust settled ahead of the Peyresourde, however, early strugglers such as Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) and Cadel Evans (BMC) had ridden themselves back into the action, with only Porte left floundering in the no-man’s land behind.
Initially, Porte had some teammates to help in the pursuit, but by the Peyresourde, he was left with only Peter Kennaugh – himself an early crash victim – for company, while the remnants of the Sky team were scattered across the mountainside. Indeed, Vasil Kiryienka’s collapse was such that he would ultimately finish outside the time limit. Twenty-four hours after Sky’s manhandling of the first Pyrenean stage, it was a curious turnaround in fortunes for the British team.
“My teammates worked hard yesterday to get me into the yellow jersey and they paid a bit for that,” Froome said “We didn’t have a great start to the day either because of Pete Kennaugh’s fall, and of course the race was going too quickly at that point for him to come back.”
The peloton on the Hourquette d'Anzican
Up ahead, meanwhile, Pierre Rolland (Europcar) had danced clear with Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), Hesjedal, Bart De Clerq (Lotto Belisol) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), although they were caught and passed by a determined Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge) on the way down. The Australian would lead over the Col de Val Louron-Azet but Movistar’s brisk tempo behind meant that the escapees were never out of sight and they were swept up on the lower slopes of La Hourquette d'Ancizan.
Ruben Plaza and Rui Costa beat the drum for Movistar on the lower slopes of the climb as Kennaugh and Porte had done for Sky the previous day, while Froome sat attentively in fourth wheel between Valverde and Quintana, with Contador, Mollema, Schleck et al happy to keep a watching brief. And Quintana’s probing notwithstanding, that’s how it remained into Bagnères-de-Bigorres, as the main overall contenders came home together 20 seconds down on Martin.
Valverde, Contador et al will be frustrated, of course, that they failed to peg back time on such an isolated Froome, but they will also be encouraged by the day's events. The air of invincibility surrounding Froome’s Sky team has been dispelled and that is a thought that will revive many spirits in the peloton as the Tour heads into its first rest day.