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Unstoppable: Tony Martin heads for a stage win
Long course suits the world time trial champion
Although Astana's Vincenzo Nibali appears to have the 2014 Tour de France title sewn up, sitting pretty as he is 7:10 ahead of 24-year-old Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), the fight for the remaining two podium spots will be decided during Saturday's time trial – the penultimate stage 20 of the race – with just 15 seconds separating Pinot, third-placed Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in fourth.
But there's also the matter of the stage win, and time-trial specialist Tony Martin will start the day as the favourite to stand atop the stage-winner's podium after the 54-kilometre test between Bergerac and Périgueux.
Not that a Tour time trial after three tough weeks of racing always produces the result that one might expect. The battle for the podium should see the general-classification contenders featuring in the top 10 on the stage at least, while Nibali's dominance this year could also translate to a stage win against the clock.
"Everybody's really tired after three weeks of racing, and, yes, there can be a lot of surprises during a late time trial like this," Martin told Cyclingnews in Maubourguet on Friday morning ahead of stage 19. "I hope that I've still got some good form, but it is a bit of a lottery after three weeks."
"He has a fair chance, and most people probably would say that he's the favourite to win it," was the assessment of Martin's directeur sportif at his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, Brian Holm. "But there are a lot of other good riders here, and it will be a case of seeing how well Tony's recovered after the mountains. He'll start as the favourite for the stage, but you can take nothing for granted."
Both Holm and Martin pointed out that having been able to 'take it easy' on the three stages in the Pyrenees might count in the German rider's favour.
"The GC riders of course have to put in a good ride tomorrow [Saturday], but, on the other hand they've had to dig really deep in the last few days," Holm said to Cyclingnews. "Tony and some of the other good time triallists – like Tom Dumoulin [Giant Shimano] – would have been able to lose a few more minutes on the climbs and not dig that deep.
"But when you say in the [pre-stage] meetings, 'Take it easy in the mountains,' you sound a little bit stupid!" Holm laughed. "Even if you lose 20 minutes, you've still gone through the same pain as everyone else."
"Trying to save energy in the Pyrenees is always hard," agreed Martin. "It's the difference between going up the road in the breakaway in a bid to win the stage, or just trying to get to the finish inside the time limit, so I tried to go as easy as possible, but they were still a hard few days."
At 54 kilometres, the time trial is long, and over the sort of distance disputed more often during Tours in the 1980s: an old-school time-trial distance.
"Yeah, but remember that Tony is pretty old school, from the former DDR (East Germany). 'Panzerwagen' never tries to complicate things," Holm said, using his preferred nickname for his rider.
"The route's only got small climbs on it, so you can expect him to be able to use a pretty big gear. For Tony, it's normally a case of the longer and harder, the better."