He might have been on the deck after crashing hard and he might have crossed the line behind his rivals but a bloodied Chris Froome doggedly retained the race lead on a thrilling 19th stage of the Tour de France yesterday.
The Team Sky rider came down on a wet descent 11 kilometres from the finish line as the pace was really on and only for his teammate Geraint Thomas offering up his own bike, Froome’s seemingly unassailable lead could well have been wiped out.
He’s been unshakable this past three weeks and looks odds-on to ride into Paris tomorrow in the yellow jersey for the third time in his career but it could have all been so different.
Racing down the penultimate climb of the day before the summit finish to Saint Gervais-Mont Blanc, Froome lost control — as did a number of others — and came down sharply on a greasy corner.
He immediately remounted on Thomas’s bike and got going, though clearly in pain and badly shredded on his right side.
At that point, there were a number of riders up the road chasing the stage win while most of those in the top 10 were also around him when the accident happened.
And they didn’t wait around to see what the prognosis for the man in yellow was, but rather sought to take advantage of the mishap.
As well as Froome, second-place Bauke Mollema (Trek Segafredo) also came to grief though he was not so fortunate as to be able to make it back ointo the top general classification riders’ group.
Froome was clearly suffering as the remnants of the peloton raced towards the line and one rider who really turned the screw in search of stage glory and the chance to move up the standings was Dan Martin.
The Irishman started the day 10th but with those immediately ahead of him within touching distance he saw his chance to attack.
He waited until three kilometres to go before accelerating clear and unlike previous stages where he was chased, the Etixx-QuickStep man slipped away.
The only rider up ahead of him at this point was Frenchman Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) but he managed to hold off Martin and the chasing pack to take a marvellous stage win.
Martin was eventually caught as the likes of Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team), Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) all lifted the pace, though moved up to second in the standings after the aforementioned Mollema conceded almost four and a half minutes.
Still, Martin bagged an excellent seventh, 36 seconds down on Bardet to move up to ninth overall (7’10” down on Froome).
Quintana also edged his way on to the podium and is now 4’27 down overall.
“I stayed relaxed all day, the guys helped me the best way they could and I had strong legs,” said Martin.
“I knew Bardet was up the road and that’s why I decided to attack.
“I felt I could go for the stage win, especially as I didn’t think there was an interest in chasing me.
“Still, despite being caught, I’m glad I had this go,” he added.
Inside the top 10 general classification after almost three weeks is a place the 29-year-old has never found himself and though it’s unlikely he’ll move up, he’s content that he’s given it his all.
“The time I’ve lost comes down to experience, which is something you get with learning.
“I’m definitely one of the best guys on the climbs here in the race, so in the winter I will work more on my time trial, because I saw that I can fight for a good overall in the Tour de France.” The other Irishman in the race, Sam Bennett, endured another tough slog to make it to the finish as he finished 150th over half an hour down in a group of 70.
He’s got one more mountain stage to go today as the riders travel from Mégeve to Morzine over four categorised climbs, the last of which is a hors categorie ascent of Col de Joux Plane.
After today his mind will be trained on Paris tomorrow and one last crack at what would be a first stage win.
Given the way he’s had the last three weeks it’s unlikely he’ll contend but with Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) withdrawing midweek and the added motivation of seeing his closest ally and teammate Shane Archbold withdraw due to a cracked pelvis on Thursday, the Carrick man could yet provide the fairytale ending to what’s been a nightmare race.
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