When the maillot jaune launches a surprise attack on the flat and snaffles a handful of seconds on his rivals, as Chris Froome (Sky) did in Montpellier on stage 11 of the Tour de France, received wisdom says that a psychological blow has been dealt in the battle for overall honours.
Dan Martin's morale did not seem to have been unduly affected, however, as he warmed down outside the Etixx-QuickStep bus a short way past the finish line on Wednesday afternoon. The Irishman finished safely in the main peloton, dropping 12 seconds – six on the stage and six in bonuses – to Froome to remain in third place overall, now 31 seconds adrift.
"When I woke up this morning I would have taken that," Martin told Cyclingnews as he soft-pedalled on the home trainer. "It's a hell of a lot of stress for such little gap, and I don't think anybody in the top ten wasn't in the front group as well. Everybody had a hard day, but I think it will be more of the same tomorrow morning before Mont Ventoux."
The Tour's forays into the Languedoc have regularly seen the race buffeted by strong winds over the years, and since the route was unveiled last October, the podium contenders were braced for the threat of echelons. The gusts forecast on the morning's weather bulletins merely heightened the tension.
Martin was well-positioned to avoid the first telling splits with 60 kilometres remaining and paid tribute to his Etixx-QuickStep team's work in protecting him in the finale, even though he wondered if it had ultimately curtailed their ability to peg back the decisive move of Froome and stage winner Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) in order to set up a bunch finish for Marcel Kittel.
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"The guys did a great job of keeping me on the front and I was never further back than 30th. At the end, when people started attacking, it got a bit crazy but Tony [Martin] saved me at that point. He literally rode 5k in the wind for me. Everybody played their part today. That maybe cost us in the end and when the group got away, we couldn't catch them back."
The wind is sure to be a factor on Thursday as the peloton makes the long trek to Mont Ventoux. Indeed, the conditions have already made a telling impact on the day's racing. Shortly after stage 11 finished in Montpellier, Tour director Christian Prudhomme confirmed that the Tour will stop six kilometres shy of the summit of the Ventoux, at Chalet Reynard, due to the expected gusts of 100kph on the exposed road at the top.
"I'd say the hardest part of Mont Ventoux is the bit up to Chalet Reynard and the wind could kind of negate the racing beyond that. Though it would be a pity not to go up to the iconic finish because that's the finish we all dream of winning on," Martin said before the amendment to the stage was confirmed. "If it's going to be that windy on top, think about what it's going to be like before. But I'm on a super strong team for those conditions."
On the Tour's last visit to Mont Ventoux, in 2013, the conditions and pace were such that riders were beginning to lose contact with the peloton even before it had reached the base of the climb, and Martin's memory of the day – his sole competitive outing on the Giant of Provence to date – is of a "brutally hard" stage.
Even without those final six kilometres "on the moon," as Prudhomme put it, Mont Ventoux ought to provide the sternest test of the Tour to date. The tight situation atop the general classification after the Pyrenees came as a surprise to many, but Martin believes the terrain has not been conducive to provoking large gaps before now.
"I think had we used one of the harder climbs in Andorra to finish on, rather than Arcalis, we would definitely have seen more gaps. But I knew before the start that Arcalis wouldn't be decisive," Martin said.
"If you look back to 2009, there was a group of 15 favourites for GC all up there. And because of how hard the stage was on Sunday, there were still quite decent gaps [compared to 2009.] The course has been designed this year to keep it close until the Alps and that makes for exciting racing."
The Mont Ventoux finale is followed 24 hours later by the Tour's first time trial, a rolling 37.5-kilometre test from Bourg-Saint-Andéol to La Caverne du Point-d'Arc. Riders who leave too much on the road on Thursday could pay a hefty toll the following afternoon, but there will be little scope for calculation on the 10-kilometre haul to Chalet Reynard.
"Everybody is going to finish tired tomorrow," Martin said. "It depends on how quickly you recover, not how deep you go."
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