So near but so far. Tony Martin’s solo bid to take the win in the Vuelta a España came within less than half a dozen pedal strokes of success on Thursday’s sixth stage, and it was only when he was swamped so close to the line that the German finally admitted he had lost.
Martin could not raise his arms in triumph, unlike in the last lone breakaway (almost) from the gone of similar length in recent Vuelta history, when Dave Zabriskie attacked after about four kilometres of stage 11 in 2004 and held on to win in Caravaca de la Cruz.
But even so, at the Omega Pharma-QuickStep bus a few hundred metres behind the line in Cáceres on Thursday, the mood was anything but one of defeat. In coming so close and digging so deep in such unfavourable circumstances, Martin was the overwhelming moral winner of stage seven.
“I can’t complain, he got seventh, that’s the best result he’s ever got in a bunch sprint,” team sports director Jan Schaffrath joked to Cyclingnews. “He never ran a top ten in a sprint before!”
Jokes apart, Schaffrath said Martin was anything but disappointed at getting so close to a victory. “That’s the great thing about Tony, he always looks on the good side. He knew he did a great ride and even getting so close was a really good ride.”
There were some factors in his favour apart from judging his and the peloton’s strength to perfection.
“The last ten kilometres were pretty technical, up and down and with tricky corners as well, and sometimes a single guy can go faster than the group. Some of the sprinters’ guys had been dropped on the draggy climb with about six kilometres to go, that helped as well.”
They had not spoken about attacking before the stage, Schaffrath said. “When I heard it over the radio that after 500 metres one of our guys was out there and then that it was Tony I was like ‘oh f....k, what’s going on?’” I had no idea, the plan was to sprint for Gianni [Meersman.]”
Like everybody else during the last half hour of Martin’s attack, the QuickStep management were making mental bets on whether he could stay away or not. With 20 kilometres to go, Schaffrath was convinced he could not win “because the time gap was too small.” And with 1.5 kilometres, “I thought he might stay away.”
“For sure, I’m happy with the results, with another 10 metres he would have won. But I’m even happier to see that he’s in such good shape here. But Tony kept on saying he was going to go for it all the way to the line, that he was never going to look back. He was determined to win.
“He raced it very cleverly, he never went full gas in the first part, just kept on saving a little bit of energy here and there, and he used it all for the finish.”
In the distance looms the world championships in Florence, and after stage seven’s lengthy ‘test’, the omens could hardly be better for Martin when it comes to defending his time trial title from 2012 and 2011. “A day like this will do more for his head than for his legs,” Schaffrath reasoned. “We already saw in the team time trial he was going really well.”
As for Thursday, that was a confirmation of that impression with a capital C.