The UAE Team Emirates team leader finished in the front group of 50 riders but had to fight for that result after a tense last hour of racing in the hills of the champagne region. Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) gained five seconds on them all when defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) struggled to hold the wheels on the steep climb, but for everyone with overall ambitions, it was important to limit any losses and finish the stage close to their rivals.
"I think everyone's happy to get through it and get another stage down. We’re three days into this Tour de France, and every day we’ve had something different thrown at us,” Martin told Cyclingnews as he spun out the pain of the day from his legs on the rollers outside the UAE Team Emirates bus.
Martin sits 1:28 down on Alaphilippe after the Frenchman won alone in Epernay. UAE Team Emirates lost 43 seconds to Team Ineos in Sunday’s team time trial and Martin is now 48 seconds behind Bernal. Every other overall contender is closer but within reach.
"The TTT and time loss is what it is," Martin said philosophically. "I'm actually proud of how the boys rode; we’ve not done much TTT work and we’ve got four climbers and two sprinters in our line-up. We lack that big-engine specialist, so we lost less time, but we actually did better than in 2018."
The finish in Epernay, with the rollercoaster finale through the vineyards and then the steep kick-up to the finish, was a lot like an Ardennes Classic, where Martin thrives thanks to his natural aggression and climbing ability.
He was happy to have seen the finale of the stage this spring.
"I thought it was more important to look at the Muur of Gerardsbergen on stage 1, but I’m glad (directeur sportif) Allan Peiper convinced me to drive down after Liege-Bastogne-Liege and look it. We knew exactly what to expect, which was important. The team did a great job and kept me out of trouble up front. Then it was up to me."
Martin explained why the overall contenders raced cautiously, allowing Alaphilippe to win alone and take the glory and the yellow jersey. They are playing a much longer game.
"It’s very early to be making big efforts like that as a GC rider. With so many teammates around, if you do make a move on a finish like today, then other teams will chase you down, we saw that with the move by Landa and Woods," Martin explained with a true Grand Tour race mentality.
"This a very hard and mountainous Tour," he said. "You also feel that anything can happen in any moment, so I think people are more and more conscious that using up unnecessary energy so early could be very costly in the final week, especially with those last three days in the Alps. Say that, but you hope everybody doesn’t wait for the Alps because it could be too late.
Fireworks on La Planche des Belles Filles
Martin hinted that he and others could show their hand and try to gain time for the first time on their GC rivals on Friday’s stage 6 mountain finish on La Planche des Belles Filles.
In 2017 Martin finished second there behind lone winner Fabio Aru, who is now his UAE Team Emirates teammate. But he managed to gain precious seconds on all the other GC contenders on the steep slopes of the Vosges climb.
This year the stage includes an extra, steeper section up to the very summit of the mountain.
"I’ve not seen the new final part, but I know it. I’ve raced on it and almost won there if Fabio hadn’t gone away alone. Getting to one kilometre to go is the key then the finish is there. We'll figure it out when we get there," Martin said.
"It’s a very very difficult stage, and so I think there’s going to be a very big shake up," he warned. "There are more climbs before we get there this time, and so it’s probably one of hardest stage of the whole Tour. Coming so early, everyone will have fresh legs. There’s going to be fireworks on La Planche des Belles Filles."