Stage 7 was a day of mixed emotions for Quick-Step Floors at Paris-Nice with Julian Alaphilippe dropping out of the yellow jersey but Dan Martin sparing the team's blushes with a ride that cemented his place on the podium.
The Belgian team came into the key stage with Alaphilippe looking to become the first French rider in twenty years to win the overall. Ahead stood 177 kilometres of difficult terrain with the final long ascent up the Col de la Couillole.
In truth, by the time Richie Porte (BMC Racing) soloed clear with around five kilometres left Alaphilippe was already a spent force, having been dropped when Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) lit up the peloton with 10 kilometres to go. The Colombian climber stretched the bunch to breaking point and while Alaphilippe wasn't the only casualty, he was certainly one of the most significant. He struggled with both the gradient and the relentless pace, leaving Dan Martin to stem the bleeding as QuickStep's race lay in trauma.
The Irishman briefly lost contact with Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Sergio Henao (Sky) but was able to catch and outpace the Colombian with the line in sight to take third behind Porte – no longer in podium contention – and Contador. In so doing, Martin moved into second overall behind Henao, one second ahead of third-placed Contador.
Alaphillipe, who won the time trial earlier in the week, dropped to fifth overall.
"I did my best, it was a beautiful week so far and it isn't over yet. It was great to see so many fans cheered for me, as their support and my stint in yellow made this experience a fantastic one," the Frenchman said later.
Martin now lies 30 seconds off new race leader, Henao, with Contador breathing down his neck before the final mountain stage. The climber paid tribute to Alaphilippe when he spoke to Cyclingnews at the finish but will be well aware that the race is far from finished.
"It's a pity to lose the jersey but we were realistic the whole time. That's why I followed Sergio and Alberto when they attacked. Tomorrow is another day and it's a good stage for Julian," he said.
"We've had a great week as a team, and to have me still on the podium… it's mixed emotions. I'm sad for Julian but we've got two in the top five, so we have to be happy. That was the hardest day of racing so far."
Martin can at least be content with his ride. He was unable to match Porte's acceleration but he paced himself well on the last climb and his turn of speed to catch Henao at the line suggests that he may still have ambitions of attacking the Team Sky rider on the final stage.
"Everyone was too tired out there. It was like racing in slow motion. It's been a really hard week but there's one day to go."
For Alaphilippe there was the consolation of increasing his lead over Simon Yates for the White jersey, while the Frenchman also moved into Green after Arnaud Demare quit the race.
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