Dan Martin dug deep into his innate racing instinct and channeled his natural aggression to win alone on the Mur de Bretagne, confirming in a single blow that he has to be considered an overall contender for this year's Tour de France and that he has become the leader at UAE Team Emirates.
The ever-aggressive Irishman gained a handful of seconds on his overall rivals, but psychologically they were worth their weight in gold.
Martin's solo attack with 1,200m to go forced several of his rivals to bow their heads in respect as they were unable to chase him down. He finished three seconds clear of his overall rivals and also took a 10-second time bonus, while Chris Froome (Team Sky) lost contact and gave up eight seconds, and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) lost 11 seconds.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) lost 31 seconds after clashing with Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and changing a bike with a teammate, while the Dutchman lost 53 seconds after changing a wheel and was later penalised a further 20 seconds for drafting behind his team car.
"A lot of the questions before the stage this morning were if I was aiming for the stage victory or to take time. I said, 'If I win the stage, I take time'," a radiant Martin explained post stage.
"Maybe ask me if the seconds count for anything in Paris. I think the most important thing is the victory. I think every team feels the pressure to perform at the Tour de France, but now we have our stage victory we can enjoy the race even more than before, whatever happens."
Martin's attack perhaps seemed instinctive - it was certainly courageous - but it was built on logic.
"With the headwind, maybe it was too early, but if you hesitate when there's an opportunity like that, it's maybe too late. I knew that if they caught me I'd still be able to hold onto the wheel into the headwind.
"I knew it was my only chance of winning the stage. If I'd waited for the sprint I wouldn't have won, so I had to try. When I attacked, I didn't look back til 500 metres to go, then I kept going and going and going. The legs just seemed to be there."
Becoming a true team leader
The victory helped make up for Martin's second place on the Mur de Bretagne in 2015, when Alexis Vuillermoz ended his chances for a second Tour stage victory to add to his first in Bagnéres de Bigorre in 2013.
Since then Martin has moved from Garmin to Quick-Step and then to UAE Team Emirates for the 2018 season. He turned down a financially lucrative support role at Team Sky because he wanted to be his own man and a true team leader.
The decision to trust his ability and target the overall classification at the Tour de France was risky, with the initial problems after the change of colours and ambience causing him to take a moment to meditate, evolve and mature.
"The biggest difference between Quick-Step Floors and UAE is that here I've become a real team leader at UAE," Martin explained eloquently.
"At Quick-Step I was always the GC rider but never took on the pressure of the whole team, and that's what this victory even more special, because I took on this role with added pressure.
"Maybe that's why I wasn't so good at the start of the season, I needed to adapt to this role. But in the last few weeks and especially at this race, we have created a special atmosphere in the team; we've put very little pressure on ourselves and we're racing well. I think that's my influence and my attitude change, and it's reflecting in the whole team. I think we've seen a big turn around at UAE Team Emirates and long may that continue."
Martin needed time to understand that a true team leader leads by example and has a huge influence on the performance of his teammates, which, in turn, helps the team leader perform at his best.
"I've realised that the way I act affects the people around me. If I'm nervous and stressed, that puts everyone else on edge. So it was about me stepping back and understanding why I do this and how I deal with it all," he explained.
"In May I had a moment of reflection. I was making a lot of sacrifices; for example today my wife had an important check-up for the birth of our twins, she's at 28 weeks and had a scan. We miss moments like that when you're a pro cyclist, but it's moment like this that make it almost worthwhile.
"I make those sacrifices because I love riding my bike – I hope that will never change – and I love racing my bike, too, especially on days like today, when I race on instinct and read the race and I can feel the right moment to attack; that's the fun moment in cycling for me.
"I race best when I'm happy and relaxed, and I've now seen that when I'm happy and relaxed, that translates into a happy and relaxed team and we all race well and believe in me. To sum up: When I'm happy, everyone is happy, especially when I win."
In the GC battle
Martin gained three seconds on a group of many of his rivals in the classification but gained eight seconds on Chris Froome after the Team Sky rider was unable to stay on the wheels in the final metres
UAE Team Emirates lost 1:39 to BMC Racing in the Cholet team time trial and more than a minute to most of Martin's other major rivals for the overall classification. That has left Martin 21st overall, 1:24 down on best GC rider Geraint Thomas (Team Sky).
He is now ahead of Bardet and close to many others and is looking optimistically to the mountains, with the hope of limiting his losses on the cobbled stage to Roubaix next Sunday.
"Hopefully the loss in the TTT won't count for much in Paris. If I can get to the first rest day after the cobbled stage with these time gaps, I'd be happy," Martin said.
"The most important thing so far is the stage victory, anything that happens from now on is a bonus. We do have a big goal in this Tour: obviously to do our best, but also to see how far we can go in the general classification. We'll still in the fight and we'll keep plugging away and see what happens."
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