The general classification contenders have faced criticism over the past week for producing a dearth lack of attacks on the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky), but the Tour de France is never as straightforward as it looks.
With the likes of Wout Poels and Mikel Landa setting the tempo for Froome on the climbs, or Diego Rosa chipping in on behalf of Astana’s Fabio Aru, as he did on the Grand Colombier on Sunday, many of the best climbers in the race are focused more on survival than on grand gestures.
Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) was a pugnacious presence in the Pyrenees, and was one of the riders who took the fight to Froome on the Arcalis summit finish in his adopted home of Andorra on stage 9, but, like others, he has felt less effervescent as the days have ticked by and fatigue has risen. The general level of aggression has dropped accordingly, even if the pace on the climbs remains high.
“It’s such a level playing field, I think. It looks like everybody is just on the limit. I’ve said it all along, the Tour is always about who has the least bad bad day,” Martin told Cyclingnews ahead of the final rest day in Bern. “It’s definitely coming down to that more and more. It’s about recovering and staying at the same level for as long as possible rather than making attacks.
“Obviously when you’re fresher in the first week, like in the Pyrenees, we were able to make more attacks and stuff. But when you get into the third week and you’ve got that level of fatigue, the explosiveness is just gone.”
As per recent tradition, the Tour’s arduous four-day finale in the Alps is made up of relatively short legs, ostensibly suited to the kind of stage-long drama provided by Alberto Contador on the road to Alpe d’Huez in 2011 or Nairo Quintana en route to the same climb a year ago. The question lingers, however, as to how many riders will be able to summon up the wherewithal to race aggressively on that terrain.
“On this Tour, we’ve done so many kilometres and hours in the bike, and even if some of that’s been on flat stages, it’s not easy and it still saps the energy. We’ve got five days to go and only 600 kilometres left. It’s a sixth of the race in quarter of the days. It shows how kilometre-heavy the first part of the race has been,” Martin said.
“It’s a test of endurance. Hopefully I’ll have better legs and will be able to be more aggressive, but you also saw last Sunday, it’s hard to attack when Chris still has three or four teammates around him.”
Voyage of discovery
Martin enters the Tour’s denouement in the Alps in 9th place overall, 5:03 down on Froome but less than two minutes off the top five and barely more shy of a place on the podium. In 2013, he entered the final week in the top 10 only to slip to 33rd overall after falling ill in the closing days.
“This the first time I’ve ever really ridden GC from the start of the Tour, and for the moment it’s gone pretty well,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of mountains still to come and I’m still there in the fight. I’m not too far from the podium or top five. I’m still in the top 10 and that was a little bit the objective at the start of the race but it’s still a voyage of discovery.”
Only on one day did Martin’s Tour threaten to run aground, when he was distanced on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, though he gamely succeeded in limiting his losses to a minute on the Giant of Provence and achieved par on the following day’s tough time trial in the Ardèche.
“That day my legs weren’t bad, but I just couldn’t hold on. It was just so fast on the Ventoux that day,” Martin said. “We were trying to distance some rivals in the crosswinds beforehand, and we maybe used a bit too much energy in that respect. To lose that wheel, to lose that group cost me a minute or so but at least we tried something.”
Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue trumped for Saturday’s penultimate leg to Morzine as the most difficult of the Alpine quartet to come, while Sky manager Dave Brailsford plumped for the time trial to Megeve on Thursday. Martin, for his part, is wary of Wednesday’s tough leg to Finhaut-Emosson.
“I think the day after the rest day is always important and this is such a difficult day,” Martin said. “I looked at it today and it’s such a tough final climb, and I think there’s 23 kilometres of climbing in the last 30, and all very steep gradients. If you’re on a bad day after the rest day, then guys could lose minutes there. It’s going to be really tough, especially if this heat continues as well.”