LAVAUR, France (VN) — Tony Martin crossed the finish line at Super-Besse in stage 8 in a state of hyperventilation. The big German diesel had managed to hang with the lethal accelerations of Cadel Evans and Philippe Gilbert up the short but steep rising finale and bent over his handlebars to catch his breath.
Right behind him, HTC-Highroad teammate Peter Velits crossed the line with pain etched on his face.
As TV crews and journalists chased reactions from the Schlecks and Alberto Contador, the pair pedaled almost unnoticed in the finish-line mayhem and disappeared into the HTC bus without missing a beat.
Off the radar and unnoticed; that sums how the first half of the 2011 Tour has gone for HTC-Highroad’s two-pronged GC attack. And that’s just fine for them.
“It’s OK so far. I am healthy,” Martin told VeloNews. “The most important thing in the first week of this Tour is to stay on the bike, so I have been very lucky.”
Martin and Velits roll south into the Pyrénées in ideal position, quietly poised in sixth and seventh, respectively, tied at 2:38 back. That puts them in fourth and fifth in the “virtual” standings, assuming that Thomas Voeckler and Luis Leon Sanchez eventually fade in the deep mountains. Whether they can maintain their encouraging position remains to be seen.
The pair’s solid position hasn’t gone completely unnoticed, however. Cadel Evans (BMC) said he has Velits on his radar screen.
“Of course I think Contador and the Schlecks are expected to be the big challenge in the mountains,” Evans said before Wednesday’s start. “Peter Velits is somebody at the moment who looks good, that no one is talking about.”
HTC comes with a team built around sprinter ace Mark Cavendish. Even Martin and Velits must pitch in to help set up the Manxster, who bolted to his third stage win of this year’s Tour on Wednesday. In fact, Martin is an integral part of the Cavendish Express, taking pulls in the closing kilometers when he powers at the front of the peloton, using his time trial power to crank up the speed at the front of the peloton.
HTC-Highroad sport director Valerio Piva suggested that being at the nose of the action for the sprints, in fact, might be one reason why Martin and Velits have largely avoided the crashes that have plagued so many other GC candidates.
“Tony works in the final of the sprint, but I don’t think one or two kilometer in the front will hurt him in the end,” Piva told VeloNews. “We try to save Tony and Peter as long as possible. We are not using them to put on the front to pull or chase, so helping out a little bit in the sprints doesn’t hurt. In fact, it’s better, because he is at the front of the peloton and he can push one kilometer for the sprint and then roll in without pressure.”
Martin comes into the Tour after a successful spring that included overall victory at Paris-Nice while Velits is at the Tour looking to confirm his breakout third-place at last year’s Vuelta a España, a first grand tour podium for the HTC outfit since Bob Stapleton took over the helm in 2006.
“We come to the Tour with a strong sprinter team, but we have two riders in Tony and Peter to try to do a good GC. The objective is to try to finish in the top-10,” Piva told VeloNews. “Now we will see in the first stages in the Pyrénées and which from the two who can do a good result to Paris.”
Piva said it’s impossible to say who is strong in the Tour because there hasn’t been a true test for the GC riders. The stress and tension of the crashes has eliminated some big names, but the Pyrénées will reveal who has the legs to truly challenge for the maillot jaune.
For Martin, a quiet, hard-working German rider who prefers to let his legs do the talking, a run at the top-10 would be a major boost. HTC’s Rolf Aldag is a strong believer in both Martin and Velits, and hopes one of them, perhaps both, can deliver a big surprise come Paris, especially with the final time trial waiting in Grenoble.
“The goal is still the same, nothing is changed. I am hoping for a top-10, we shall see what happens in the mountains,” Martin said. “Another big goal is the final time trial Grenoble.”
Martin’s not kidding. He won the TT stage at the Dauphiné on the same exact course the Tour peloton will face on the penultimate stage. Could a stage win and a surprise bolt for the podium be possible? Velits, too, has used a grand tour’s final time trial to charge up the leaderboard. At last year’s Vuelta, he won the final TT, a result that helped him secure his breakthrough podium.
“Peter with the podium at the Vuelta gained a lot of confidence. Peter wants to try to win a stage because he’s very fast. He can come into the final on hilly stages,” Piva said. “That’s the objective, he was third in the Vuelta, he’s able to do a big tour at the top level. He’s a good time trialist. He’s in a perfect position. He’s fresh and comes to the Tour without big pressure.”
If these two keep floating near the top of the leader board once the Tour turns out of the Pyrénées next week, their sense of anonymity in the peloton will quickly evaporate. First, they have to hang with the big attacks over the next three days.