Tuesday July 7th, 2015

Through three stages, Tony Martin​ was this Tour de France’s hard luck story, a rolling bridesmaid who couldn’t catch a break.

That pattern seemed to be holding to form 16 kilometers from the finish of today’s 223-km stage from Seraing, Belgium, to Cambrai, France. With attacks popping at the front of the race, Martin punctured a tire, a misfortune that ought to have extinguished any chance at a stage win.

But after a quick bike change with Etixx-Quick Step teammate Matteo Trentin—who, at 5'10", is three inches shorter—Martin calmly chased his way back to the main group, where he noticed something:

“With five kilometers [to go], we were all looking at each other, nobody wanted to pull,” Martin recounted afterward. “Somehow I found some [power], and I made it … I don’t know how many watts I pulled. I think more than I ever did.”

Which is saying something, considering that the 30-year-old German is a three-time world champion in the time trial discipline. He’s got a huge engine, but it runs at maximum efficiency on smoother tracks. Stage 4 was this Tour’s nod to the sport’s one-day classics, specifically Paris-Roubaix. The stage featured seven sections of molar-rattling, spine-jarring cobblestones. In all, there were 13 kilometers of unruly, irregular pave—not enough to wreak havoc on the general classification, as happened in last year’s Day of Cobbles, Stage 5.

With the rough roads in the rear view mirror five clicks from the finish, Martin surveyed the riders around him: a mix of cobblestone specialists, plus all the pre-race favorites: Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and, perhaps most surprising, considering his slight frame and inexperience on the pave, Colombian Nairo Quintana. All were relieved, it seemed, to have survived the bumps. None showed the slightest interest in the stage win.

Edge
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Martin launched, swinging left, drafting briefly in the slipstream of a motorcycle, and quickly was a football field up the road. There was no response from the heads of state, or their handlers. There was no organization, no will to join the chase.

“I saw him going,” Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas told NBCSN afterward. “I thought, ‘Fair enough. He can go.’” Thomas, one of Froome’s lieutenants, was not exactly heartbroken about his squad losing the yellow jersey to Martin, who is not a climbing specialist and will be handing back the maillot jaune as soon as the race hits the mountains. “Yeah it’s fine, we don’t need it this early.”

Martin didn’t need it either. But he wanted it desperately. And he deserved it, frankly, after standing in second place—by less than a second, behind three different riders—for three straight days. Favored to win the prologue and take yellow, he came second instead to Rohan Dennis, the talented young Aussie for BMC. Martin stood poised to move into yellow the following day, only to have his hopes crushed by the vagaries of a bunch sprint. With teammate Mark Cavendish launching his attack too early, then seeming to relax ever-so-slightly at the line, Cav was pipped for third by Fabian Cancellara, who, by virtue of that finish, scooped up a handful of bonus seconds. That slender margin vaulted the rider known as Spartacus into the race lead, less than a second ahead of Martin, who had never worn the yellow jersey in his career and who, following the next day’s Stage 3, must’ve suspected that he never would. On the strength of his ferocious ascent of the brief but murderous Mur de Huy climb at the end of Stage 3, Froome rode into yellow, a mere six hundredths of a second ahead of the apparently star-crossed German. Tough a break as that was for Martin, it was worth it to hear NBCSN’s usually silver-tongued Phil Liggett spend Tuesday wrestling with that unwieldy fraction, which he variously identified as “six one hundred tenths of a second” and “six hundred tenths of a second.”

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Either way, he was talking about a tiny sliver of time—which is all it took, alas, to knock French hopeful Thibaud Pinot off the podium. After incurring “a mechanical”—something on his bike broke—in the penultimate cobbled section, the 25-year-old for FDJ lost 3 ½ minutes to the race leaders.

He was the sole casualty on a day that was expected to have a far more disruptive effect on the general classification. Despite the hopeful pronouncements of the NBCSN announcers, who seemed delighted to share with the viewers the news that the chances of rain at the end of the stage were “100 percent”—crashes guaranteed!—the rain seemed to be light, inconsequential, or absent altogether. The cobbles weren’t as big a problem as the crosswinds in Stage 2, which sheared the peloton into echelons, and cost Nibali and Quintana precious seconds; and the carelessness of one rider in Stage 3, whose momentary inattention touched off a frightening pile-up that caused six riders to abandon the Tour. Among the casualties: the yellow jersey, Cancellara, who lived up to his gladiator’s nickname by finishing the stage despite having suffered a spinal fracture.

With fatigue and relief motivating the leaders as the finish line neared, Martin made his move, and Stage 4 was effectively decided. As the riders behind him looked at one another, Martin dropped into his familiar time trial position, forearms on handlebars, back slightly bowed, mouth agape for maximum intake of oxygen, no longer a hard luck case. In that moment, all pity was transferred to the poor sap who tried to chase him down. There were no takers.

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