Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) wheeled across the Tour de France stage 15 finish line in Le Puy-en-Velay and rode straight into a playful provocation. At the end of a demanding 189 kilometres in the Massif Central, run off at over 41kph, the Irishman managed to jump clear of the yellow jersey group and snaffle back 14 seconds on his general classification rivals, rising a place to fifth overall in the process.
It was, by any metric, a fine afternoon's work in this tightest of Tours, even if some seemed less convinced by the fruits of his 25th place on a stage won by early escapee Bauke Mollema. "All that effort for 14 seconds," a television reporter mused. "Was it worth it?"
Martin didn't blink.
"Well, I was six seconds off 7th last year and I finished 9th, so every second counts at the Tour," he pointed out. "14 seconds, I mean... Everyone was on the limit today. And the rest day's tomorrow, so I can recover."
That handful of seconds lifts Martin ahead of Mikel Landa (Sky), just 1:12 off the yellow jersey of Chris Froome (Sky) and 49 seconds off a place on the podium. Were it not for the time he conceded when he crashed on the descent of the Mont du Chat seven days ago, Martin would be in the maillot jaune by now, though he has never been one to pay too much heed to hypothetical scenarios.
"It's all 'What if?' I might have been in yellow and then lost five minutes because everyone attacks the hell out of me. The situation is the situation, and we're always going to wonder 'What if?' but this is the hand we've been dealt," Martin said. "Maybe all these seconds I've been picking up, they would never have let me go."
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In another Tour, this leg might have been earmarked as a transitional stage and seen something of an unofficial truce among the general classification contenders. With the margins so tight this time around, there was precious little chance of that here. The forcing of Romain Bardet's AG2R La Mondiale team on the category 1 Col de Peyra Taillade whittled the group of contenders to its bare bones, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar) losing almost four minutes and all hope of a podium finish.
The yellow jersey Chris Froome (Sky), meanwhile, suffered a mechanical problem at the base of the climb and was forced into a stressed pursuit. The danger passed but the tension lingered, and on the category 4 Côte de Saint-Vidal in the finale, Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) stretched the group with a stinging attack. When he was pegged back, Martin sensed his opportunity on the uncategorised haul out of Polignac with five kilometres remaining.
"Everybody's on the limit. It's stage 15. We've got so many kilometres in the legs and this week's been brutal, so that's why I'm happy just to keep nipping away seconds. That's why I jumped as well, I saw everybody was tired, and if you can just get a gap, they might hesitate and look at each other," Martin said.
"I planned to do it with 5k to go. Everybody was on the limit after the cat 4 climb when Yates attacked, so I thought that after the downhill everybody might look at each other. When everybody's on the limit, that's the time to go. Although I didn't really plan on there being a headwind and few more climbs to go... It was a really hard finish, but in the end we made it."
After Martin opened a small gap, it initially looked as though his move would be rebuffed by the headwind, but he was able to count of the kindness of strangers when he caught some of the remnants of the early break on the run-in. Simon Geschke (Sunweb), Tsgabu Grmay (Dimension Data) and Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) rode with an intensity that belied the 22nd place finish they were contesting.
"They helped me a bit. They're good guys and I think that was very kind of them," Martin said. "But obviously they're going for stage results as well. It's still the Tour, you know."
It was Martin's second such attack in three stages after he successfully pilfered seconds from his rivals in the dying kilometres of Friday's miniature epic to Foix, and a sign, perhaps, that he is no longer unduly hindered by the back injury sustained in last weekend's crash.
This Tour has been a game of inches to this point, with the gaps among the top five riders oscillating by mere seconds. As the race reaches the high Alps in the third week and fatigue accumulates still further, the differences might finally begin to yawn out to minutes.
"I think guys will be cracking this last week, because everybody's gone deep at some point. I've maybe gone a little bit deeper than everyone else, but I'm trying to make up time and take advantage of situations. It's just how we race," Martin said. "I'll just take it day by day. Anybody could have a bad day. I just hope I've had mine already."
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