Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) won an incredible 9th stage of the Tour de France, out-thinking Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) as the two riders raced to the finish line in Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
Martin and Fuglsang rode away from the peloton on the final climb of the Hourquette d’Ancizan and managed to stay away through 30 kilometres of descending to the finish line. Martin had clearly studied the finish, as he timed his attack on Fuglsang to perfection, sprinting away from him on a tight corner just 200 metres from the finish.
The Irishman is having a great season and a stage win in the Tour is no less than he deserved.
The real story of the day, however, was the race for the General Classification. After appearing to have the Tour de France wrapped up after Stage 8, Chris Froome (Team Sky) was tested as he found himself without any team mates over the four Category 1 climbs encountered on the stage.
Movistar, Saxo-Tinkoff and Garmin-Sharp all took turns in creating discomfort for Froome, Martin and his team-mates Ryder Hesjedal and Tom Danielson attacked early, while Movistar sent Rui Costa and Jonathon Castroviejo forward to apply pressure.
Froome was able to stick with them, but with 2 climbs remaining in the stage Movistar took control of the race and set a fierce tempo. Costa and Coastroviejo were joined by Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana and the quartert kept increasing the pace, with more and more riders being dropped, but Chris Froome was not amongst them.
On the last climb, the climb of the Hourquette d’Ancizan, Movistar tried to dislodge Froome as Quintana attacked again and again, but Froome was able to match each attack, looking relatively comfortable as he did so.
While Froome should be ecstatic to have survived a tough day, questions have to be asked of Movistar and Alejandro Valverde. With 4 riders controlling the race and having isolated Chris Froome, they really should have been able to inflict greater damage. Valverde, though a decent time-trialler, is certain to lose time to Froome in the race against the clock, so he needed to capitalise on their effort today and make some time up again, but he was unable to turn his team’s dominance into a time gain on the leader of the General Classification.
The effort put in by Valverde’s team-mates will have taken a lot out of their legs, and with little reward to show for their efforts, it could prove to be morale sapping. Quintana will retain the white jersey as leader of the Young Riders Classification, but how much will the repeated attacks he fired for his team leader have taken out of him?
Richie Porte, so crucial in setting up Froome’s win in Stage 8, struggled today and was dropped early, which suggests that this might not be the only time Froome finds himself having to fight on his own, and with overall contenders who struggled in Stage 8 – Cadel Evans (BMC), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Andy Schleck (Radioshack Leopard Trek) amongst them – having much better days, perhaps there are a lot of twists and turns left in this race, particularly once it reaches the Alps.
Maybe Froome himself was less than impressed with his team’s efforts, with rumours that he chose to head to the team bus at the completion of the stage rather than the presentation stage to receive his yellow jersey. He did eventually collect his jersey, but some 10 minutes after the other riders had been presented to the crowd, so something unusual definitely took place.
Froome still holds a 1:25 lead over Valverde in the General Classification, with Bauke Molleme and Laurens Ten Dam (both Belkin) and Roman Kreuziger and Alberto Contador (both Team Saxo-Tinkoff) all within two minutes. Pierre Rolland remains in the polka dot jersey for the leader of the Mountains Classification and Peter Sagan will start Stage 10 in the green jersey as leader of the Points Classification.
It was the stage that Tour needed after appearing to be heading towards a foregone conclusion the day. We had attacks, counter-attacks, teams willing to take control and chinks potentially appearing in the armour of some of the leading contenders. And we finished with a plucky Irishman picking up a well-deserved stage win. The riders will certainly be relishing the chance to take a few deep breaths on the rest day tomorrow.
The action returns on Tuesday with a 197 kilometre stage from Saint-Gildas-Des-Bois to Saint-Malo that is expected to finish in a bunch sprint.