There are times when the host broadcaster's camerawork on the Tour de France can seem like an homage to Claude Lelouch's stylised film of the 1965 race, Pour un maillot jaune. Eighteen kilometres from the finish of stage 16, after the peloton had sped through Châteauneuf-sur-Isère, was one such occasion. The camera panned to the roadside and lingered for a few seconds on a field of brilliantly yellow sunflowers, their petals fluttering in the wind. No words needed.
Moments later, the reduced peloton had been cloven into two distinct groups along the exposed road, and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) was among those on the wrong side of the split. Mark Cavendish once famously likened the formation of echelons to falling through ice – "You've got five seconds or you are finished," he said – and once Martin was caught behind, it was immediately clear that the final kilometres into Romans-sur-Isère would be an exercise in damage limitation.
Fifth overall before the day began, just 1:12 behind Chris Froome (Sky), Martin conceded 51 seconds by the time he reached the finish, and he drops to seventh place, 2:03 behind the Briton, ahead of the Tour's denouement in the Alps. All of the men ahead of him on GC, plus Mikel Landa (Sky) and Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), made it aboard.
"I wasn't in a bad position at the top of the climb, it was probably me that made the gap in the end, I just didn't have the legs or the power in the wind," Martin said as he warmed down outside the Quick-Step bus following the stage. "It happens, it's unfortunate. We worked so hard to be in this position but it's not over."
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Martin was alive to the danger when the front group began to fragment on the run-in but Quick-Step manager Patrick Lefevere explained that his rider had brushed wheels with Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and was forced to brake at the crucial moment. Bardet – still third at 23 seconds – was one of the last riders to make it aboard, while Martin was left stranded on the platform, ticket in hand. Such are the maddeningly fine margins on this Tour.
"Maybe I made a mistake, but that's how it goes, it's bike racing," Martin said. "I actually knew the road from Paris-Nice so I knew it was going to be a dangerous moment. I just caught on the left-hand side of the group and guys went on the right and I got boxed in in the wind and ended up going backwards. That's just how it goes. I'm not built for these conditions, but Jack [Bauer] did an incredible job."
The gusty conditions in the Ardèche and Drôme were well flagged before the start in Le Puy-en-Velay, and, ordinarily, one might have expected Martin to fare well in the event of echelons given the prowess of his Quick-Step squad in this department. When sprinter Marcel Kittel was dropped early on, however, part of the team was delegated to stay with him, while the overnight withdrawal of Philippe Gilbert through illness had already weakened their hand.
"I didn't have great legs today and the team is sort of suffering, some of the guys have been sick. The team was really struggling today," Martin said. "We put a brave face on it at the start this morning but in the end, I only had Gianluca [Brambilla] and Jack. They did an incredible job all day.
"This was a strange one as well with the climb in the finale. That put everybody in the red and then we had the downhill, which was so dangerous. That was partly what led to me losing position because there were a couple of near crashes with guys swept by the wind, and I had to slam the brakes a couple of times. That cost me 10 or 15 positions which were vital."
Into the Alps
Sangfroid can often be at a premium in the final week of a Grand Tour, with team managers and sprinters seemingly wont to lose their cool, but Martin's response to his setback was typically composed. The time pegged back at Foix and Le Puy-en-Velay has been handed over with some change, but the final accounts have yet to be settled on this Tour, particularly with two mammoth days in the Alps to come.
"It was a stressful day. It's never boring, is it?" Martin said. "I said that anything could happen this next four days and we'll have to regroup and see what happens. I don't know what the situation is now. It's probably over for the yellow jersey, but we're still fighting."
In theory, Martin's position on general classification could allow him some additional leeway to go on the offensive over the Galibier on Wednesday or atop the Izoard on Thursday, but in practice, there is rarely much quarter given at the business end of the Tour. Martin's changed circumstances are unlikely to alter his approach.
"I'm not going to race any differently, no. I'll race with my head," Martin said. "It probably does mean I'll have a little more freedom, but it's also the last week of the Tour – if I'm in seventh, the guy in sixth is going to chase me down. Tactics are always a bit weird in this last week but we'll see how things go anyway."
Around the side of the Quick-Step bus, meanwhile, Lefevere put a brave face on a disappointing afternoon. "The Tour only starts tomorrow, man. What are you talking about?" he said. "Now we are playing with seconds. Tomorrow and the day after we are playing with minutes. No, no, the Tour is only over in Paris."