When Dan Martin crashed hard on stage nine of the Tour de France last Sunday week and crossed the line 1’15” down on stage winner Rigoberto Uran, many felt his best ever chance of a podium in the sport’s greatest contest had passed him by.
Crashing hard is an occupational hazard of professional cycling but on a perilously steep decline when you’re pushing the dial towards three digits the consequences can – and have been, fatal.
Martin crashed because the man directly in front of him at the time, Tasmanian Richie Porte, also went down after he lost control on a hooking left-hand bend.
The Irishman had nowhere to go except into him and head-first into a jagged limestone wall which flanked the right side of the road.
The crunch of carbon was sickening to watch, not least because Ireland’s only hope of ending a 30-year wait for Tour success was prone on the deck as the rest of the race favourites zoomed out of view and on towards the line in Chambery.
Porte was writhing in pain on the ground not knowing at the time that he’d sustained a broken pelvis and shoulder. It could have been so, so much worse for both men.
Martin escaped with only minor injuries and rode the last 15 kilometres to the finish in a world of distress, limiting as best he could the time lost to the six men who fought it out for the stage win.
“Remarkably, it seems I bounced well,” he later tweeted, tongue in cheek, followed by, “Not nice arriving at the next hairpin and learning I had no front brake.”
Indeed, he would crash a second time on that descent and having started the day fourth just 25 seconds behind race leader Chris Froome and favourite for stage honours, he was now a distant sixth at 1’44” — and covered in road rash.
It’s a curious oddity of cycling that it’s sometimes easier to take back two minutes than two seconds, simply because the race leader is most concerned by those riders closest to him on the standings. An ‘outsider’ is allowed a little more leeway to go up the road for a sally.
And at almost two minutes down — and a history of
bad crashes in big tours,
Martin was less of a threat than those in the top five; Froome, Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru, Rigoberto Uran and Jakob Fuglslang.
But that’s not to say regaining some of the time haemorrhaged has been easy and if the crash was painful, the efforts he’s had to make to get back in the game have been no less so.
Friday’s stage 13 from Saint Girons to Foix is proof of this and no sooner had the 101-kilometre stage concluded (in around two and a half hours) — Martin crossing the line sixth, did footage appear of him on social media bent over double walking onto the team bus in agony.
“Still can’t ride out the saddle hence the hard tempo tactic to avoid accelerations. Seemed to work,” was his assessment of the day’s unfoldings.
The longer version of that is; he was twice dropped on the final climb by the group known as ‘the GC group’, only to regain contact on the descent.
And seven days after his horrific, high-speed collision with a wall he did what he does best; attacks convention and tore off up the road with Simon Yates (Orica-SCOTT) for company.
The constant stopping and starting were causing his back to spasm so he made one attack of his own and that was that.
“I just hit them as hard as I could, attacking hard and getting clear.
“I don’t know how many kilometres it was from there to the finish but it felt like an eternity.
“It was pretty painful, but I knew I had the opportunity to take a bit of time and so I was fully committed.” He was sixth across the line as a breakaway of four contested the stage up ahead but he took back nine seconds on the race leader, paring back the deficit to the podium to 1’07”.
Bearing in mind he was 1’32” off the yellow jersey starting the day and he ceded 1’15” in the crash, he was asked by a reporter if he felt he could finish on the podium.
A younger Dan Martin would have given a stock answer of downplaying his chances but his curt rebuttal before walking off with his recovery shake was, “I know that already”.
is recovery has been nothing short of spectacular but despite the ill fortune he’s had, there has been strokes of luck too and among those have been the race-ending injuries to other GC contenders Alejandro Valverde, Geraint Thomas and Jakob Fuglslang.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Martin’s best chance of ever winning the Tour may be this year as at 30 he’s at or very near to his physical and mental peak.
On Saturday he took back four seconds when he ‘got up’, or contested a mass sprint that climbers like him rarely do. But a split in the peloton behind him meant that several of ‘the GC group’ were caught out and Martin profited by pocketing precious seconds.
The margin to Mikel Landa in fifth was now just nine seconds while the podium was ‘just’ 1’03” away.
The crash basically put Martin on the offensive and instead of playing tight and aggressive like ‘the GC group’ often do, he’s played loosely and with a very calculated expense of his resources.
Yesterday’s 15th stage was a 190-kilometre journey featuring four climbs and Martin waited until those were summited before picking his moment to try and thieve a few more seconds.
And just like two days before when he attacked on the road to Foix, he was gone again as ‘the GC group’ featuring all the familiar faces hesitated.
Martin buried himself on the front of the four-man group he finished in, crossing the line 14 seconds up on those ahead of him on the standings.
And because of that he is now in fifth overall, swapping places with Landa.
“I very rarely make a plan,” he told reporters as he warmed down yesterday, a wide grin across his face.
“It’s just about taking opportunities, when Simon (Yates) attacked on the climb I saw everyone was on the limit and everyone stalled.
“I was a bit afraid with so many guys still left there but I knew it was downhill to the line and if I got a gap it’d be difficult to get me back so I saw the opening and went.” He is now 1’12” seconds off the yellow jersey of Chris Froome and 49 seconds off the podium.
He lost 1’15” in that crash, so naturally, the question came his way again; can he podium?
“I’m sure there won’t be one minute between the top six in Paris. Normally you see bigger gaps in the final week.”
Today, he will wake up and enjoy the second and final rest day before the ‘parcours’ takes the riders into the Alps for a few gruelling days before a decisive time-trial next Saturday in Marseille.
“We’ll just keep concentrating and stay focussed and hopefully it’s not me who has a bad day this week. I just hope to continue to improve now and then we can dream big.”
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