Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) took a two-up sprint with Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) to win a hectic stage 9 of the Tour de France as Chris Froome found himself under pressure a day after his Sky team dominated the first mountain stage.
Martin and Fuglsang got away on the final rated climb of the day and held their advantage to the finish, where the Irishman proved the stronger.
Martin paid his respects to Fuglsang afterward, saying his help in the escape proved invaluable.
“I don’t think one guy would have survived alone,” he said. “I was actually praying to get caught with 20K to go because my legs were hurting so much. I just had to finish it off for the guys at the end.”
Fuglsang was disappointed, saying he had hoped to steal a march on Martin, “but it didn’t work out.”
“I knew that he would be fast. But still … I felt that I was feeling a little stronger than him. But in the end, yeah, he was faster.”
Froome, for his part, called Sunday “one of the hardest days I’ve ever had on the bike.”
“To be in the front group alone, that was quite a difficult decision to be in. I am really happy with how I came through today, to still be in the yellow jersey, and having not lost too much time to my main contenders,” he said.
The peaks of pain
The short, mountainous 168.5km stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre served up no fewer than five rated climbs, four of them rated category 1, and the peloton was in a mood to take advantage of the opportunity they presented to put Team Sky in difficulty.
After the British team deployed the heavy artillery on Saturday, putting Froome and Richie Porte one-two on the stage and the overall, Sunday began with a flurry of attacks from the trenches — Vacansoleil-DCM, Garmin-Sharp, FDJ, Orica-GreenEdge, BMC, Argos-Shimano, and others had a go or two before a group finally got some daylight.
Moving forward were Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), Jan Bakelants (RadioShack-Leopard), Bart De Clercq (Lotto-Belisol) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM).
But the real story was that yellow jersey Froome found himself isolated in a chase group with Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), Cadel Evans (BMC), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and an honor guard of Movistars, among them Alejandro Valverde and white jersey Nairo Quintana.
“Everyone wanted to give Sky a bit of a fight today,” said Rolland. “Garmin started the battle right at the start. It was phenomenal. I’ve never seen a start to a race like it.”
With 70km to go the break had 90 seconds on the Froome group, while the race leader’s lieutenant, Porte, and some of the troops were caught in another group some 1:16 further down.
“I had Nicolas Portal in the car behind me, telling me not to worry,” said Froome. “It was straightforward. All of my biggest rivals were in that group. The objective was to make sure I stay with those guys.”
Simon Clarke (Orica) jumped from the Froome group, shooting up to and past the leaders, to take first spot on the road. Hesjedal, meanwhile, found himself in a spot of difficulty, falling back to the Froome group as the break suffered on the penultimate climb of the day, the Col de Val Louron-Azet.
Clarke led over the summit and onto the descent to the final obstacle, La Hourquette d’Ancizan, a 9.9km ascent averaging 7.5 percent.
Bardet, Rolland and De Clercq caught Clarke on the descent and it was a four-man break with 50km remaining.
Porte pushes, but it’s no go
Porte tried to bridge to his team leader, but Movistar gave it some stick and kept him safely at bay, more than three minutes down, in the process reeling back the four men out front as they reached the lower slopes of the final climb.
Bardet moved ahead alone as the Movistar-Froome group gobbled up the other escapees. But he, too, would be retrieved as Valverde’s team set a merciless pace.
The Movistar-Froome bunch held its fire on the final climb. Then Quintana opened the ball with a sharp attack that Froome quickly shut down. And then Martin had a go, opening a sizable gap. Fuglsang followed and it was a fresh two-man break off the front.
All the brouhaha in the bunch failed to dislodge Froome, though it snuffed a number of lesser lights, and the GC group went over the summit together.
“I was prepared for that final climb, thinking they were going to put me under pressure,” said Froome. “I felt within myself. It’s not easy to follow Quintana, he’s a light little Colombian who can fly uphill. I was ready for more attacks; I was quite glad they were not.”
With 26km to go the two leaders had just under a minute’s advantage over the chase. Behind, Porte had clocked out for the day — he summited with Hesjedal, nearly a dozen minutes down, and bid adieu to second overall.
Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had a go, trying to reach the leaders — or at least take some seconds in the white-jersey competition — but Movistar soon put paid to that, with a little help from Belkin’s Robert Gesink.
The chase pressed on and with 10km to go the leaders held just 25 seconds. They had stretched the leash a bit 5km further along, but only just, as Belkin led the pursuit.
BMC and Movistar finally chipped in on the chase, but it was too late. Fuglsang and Martin fought a two-man duel for the stage win, with the Irishman coming out on top. Kwiatkowski took third on the day.
“I targeted this stage at the start of the race and the whole team gave it everything to get me into a breakaway,” said Martin.
“It was crazy. We were attacking without thinking about it. Then, when I found myself on the final climb I saw a bit of hesitation in the group of favorites and thought ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’
“Luckily Jakob came with me and we managed to hold them off.”
On the overall, Froome held the yellow jersey, but Sky had lost second overall to Valverde, who slipped into the runner-up spot at 1:25 down. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) took over third at 1:44.
Still in contention
Contador remains in the hunt, sitting sixth overall at 1:51, and said he hopes to go a little better following Monday’s rest day.
“It was a very hard day for me. I have to say I feel better today than yesterday, but not good enough to attack,” he said. “I hope I can recover well after the Pyrénées, especially on tomorrow’s rest day, so that I’m able to prepare for the challenges ahead next week.”
Quintana, who sits seventh at 2:02 and holds the best young rider’s jersey, said Movistar did what it could to rattle Sky’s cage.
“I thought we could take our chances and work [Froome] over. We did try, as you saw,” he said. “We knew that if we attacked we could isolate him, but he was up to it.”
If nothing else, they certainly took Porte out of the picture. The man who started the day second overall crossed in 60th place on Sunday, 17:59 down, and plummeted to 33rd on GC at 18:30. And Vasil Kiryienka fell victim to the cruel time cut, leaving Sky a man down with two weeks to race.
The 2011 Tour champ Evans enjoyed a resurgence after suffering on Saturday. He remains 4:36 behind Froome, but moved up seven spots on the overall to 16th place.
“Certainly, you always have to keep your hopes alive. Quitting is not an option right now,” he said.
“What I saw today was a surprise and not what I expected of Sky. Last year, they had really good recovery amongst all their riders every day throughout the whole Tour. Today, that wasn’t the case at all. They had one rider in the front and that was a strange and really bizarre situation for the yellow jersey, especially so early in the race.”
Editor’s note: Agence France Presse contributed to this report. Stay tuned for more from the Tour de France.