Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) was not in the reckoning for the prize of most combative rider at the Tour de France, but among the overall contenders, few competed with quite the same aggression as the Irishman, who will ride into Paris on Sunday in sixth place overall.
Were it not for his crash on the descent of the Mont du Chat and the handful of seconds spilled in crosswinds on stage 16, Martin might even have begun Saturday's stage 20 time trial in contention for a podium spot. As it was, he set out from the Stade Vélodrome aware that he was unlikely to overhaul the fifth-placed Fabio Aru (Astana), but determined to enjoy the occasion in the city where he spent two seasons as an amateur with VC La Pomme.
"I thought I'd go out hard and see where I was compared to Fabio. To be frank, I had no more power left in my legs, but I ignored that feeling and rode as hard as I could," Martin said after wheeling to a halt in 40th place on the stage, 1:52 down on winner Maciej Bodnar (Bora-Hansgrohe). He will finish the Tour 4:42 behind Chris Froome (Sky).
"I am just so tired, it's been a really tough Tour de France. You're going as hard as you can all the time so there's nothing left. It's been a heavy season for me so far, too, and maybe I've been running on fumes the last couple of days. Although I was bluffing pretty well by attacking."
At the start in Düsseldorf, Martin pointed out that he had finished sixth or better in every WorldTour race he had ridden in 2017, and said that he would be content to continue that sequence at La Grande Boucle. After landing a ninth place at last year's Tour and seventh at the 2014 Vuelta a España, this is Martin's best result in a Grand Tour and perhaps his finest body of work over the course of three weeks.
At previous Tours, the third week has been something of a bête noire for Martin, but on this occasion, despite his fatigue, he animated the race on the Col du Galibier on Wednesday, and was again on the offensive on the Izoard a day later. Martin was so encouraged was by his performance that in his race diary in Saturday morning's Irish Times, he wrote: "I feel that one day I can actually take the yellow jersey all the way to Paris."
Martin's contract with Quick-Step Floors expires at the end of the current campaign. His pedigree in the Ardennes Classics, not to mention his healthy haul of WorldTour points, already made him an attractive proposition for several squads, and his growing assurance over three weeks has only cemented his status.
As Martin stood beneath a canopy past the finish line in the Stade Vélodrome on Saturday afternoon, it was put to him that this year's edition marked something of a turning point in his relationship with the Tour. Even when he took up residence in the top 10 last year, Martin seemed to ride in the guise of a stage hunter, but at 30 years of age, he seems more at ease in the role of Grand Tour contender.
"You want me to think about next year's Tour already? This is the wrong time to ask that," Martin joked. "It's been a lot of fun racing this year, and hopefully the organisers will continue the trend and make routes that are a lot more accessible for attacking.
"The climbs are a lot steeper and that makes it less of a team effort in the climbs. Even though Sky were still so strong, they were a lot more vulnerable than they were last year. So hopefully they continue that trend and we'll be back next year to try again."
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