Given the punchy finish at Peyragudes, stage 12 of the Tour de France might have seemed like a perfect opportunity for Quick-Step Floors' Dan Martin to nab a victory, but the 30-year-old Irishman said after crossing the line that he was just happy to survive a brutal day in the saddle.
Martin hit the deck on stage 9 in the same incident that saw BMC's Richie Porte abandon the race. Remounting and limiting his losses to a little over a minute, Martin fared better than Porte – who suffered a broken collarbone – but he's still recovering from the bumps and bruises sustained in the fall. That was especially apparent on Thursday's stage, won by AG2R's Romain Bardet in a hotly contested, viciously steep finale.
"From kilometre zero I felt terrible. After 50 kilometres today I expected to lose half an hour," a visibly exhausted Martin said to media after the finish. "I'm really surprised and happy that the legs came around and the body got going. I was able to not lose too much time, even gain some. I'm very happy. I thought I could maybe win the stage but I just had nothing in my legs today."
With six categorised climbs and a finish with gradients that neared 20 per cent, stage 12 was a test for the entire peloton.
"Everybody was running on empty, just such a brutal, brutal stage. It was so long, the weather as well, it was just exhausting. It's been a hell of a lot of kilometres in these 12 days," Martin said. "And even though it's been a lot of sprint stages, so-called 'easy', everyone was just running on empty this entire stage. For me, at the finish, you could see I wasn't myself.
"I can't really get out of the saddle properly. I can't really sprint properly. It definitely hindered me in that last 400 metres. That's why I tried to stay in good position and just rode as hard as I could all the way to the finish line – and it never seemed to arrive."
Despite the tough day, Martin finished sixth on the day and moved up in the general classification standings to fifth as Astana's Jakob Fuglsang dropped out of GC contention. Martin currently sits 1:41 down on new race leader Fabio Aru (Astana), and is staying confident in his chances for the final podium, a goal he'd likely be even closer to were it not for the crash on the descent to Chambéry earlier this week.
"Without losing that 1:15 I would have been there [in the podium fight] but that makes it a lot harder," Martin said. "But we've just got to take it day by day and hopefully I keep recovering. My back is still really bad. It's taken a lot out of me psychologically as well, all the physio I've had to go through just to try to get ready. But obviously it's working. The team is doing a great job. The boys believe in me 100 per cent. Even though I felt so bad at the start, they were encouraging me. Just such a team spirit today in Quick-Step Floors at the moment. They really believe in the chance that we have to get a podium.
"Like I said this morning, the Pyrenees is just about trying ride conservatively and try not to lose too much time. One day down, just have to get through the stage tomorrow and then I'll hopefully be able to be a bit more aggressive in the Alps."