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Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) safely navigated his way through a stressful opening week of the Tour de France and heads into the mountains on equal footing with pre-race favorites Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
“Great, feel really good, but tomorrow’s another day,” Martin said after the opening test in the Pyrenees, the Col d’Aspin, on Stage 6. “How you feel today doesn’t really explain tomorrow, but I seem to be coping with the number of hours we’ve done so far, the team is doing a great job of protecting me and I’m looking forward to the roads that have treated me so well in the past.”
A lanky puncheur, Martin, 29, is experiencing a bit of a rebirth this season, joining the Belgian Etixx-QuickStep squad in the offseason after spending nearly a decade in the Slipstream Sports program under the watchful eye of Jonathan Vaughters.
A stage victory at the Volta a la Comuitat Valenciana in February was the earliest Martin has ever powered to victory in a season in his career, but most importantly he finished third at the recent Criterium du Dauphine — a shot across the bow to the other GC contenders that he meant business coming into this year’s Tour.
The Irishman moved to Andorra a few years ago and knows the roads for this year’s Pyrenean stages well from spending countless hours training on them, but he has also seen success racing on them as well.
“We came down this downhill,” Martin said at the finish of stage 7 in Lac de Payolle, referring to his 2013 Tour stage victory, which climbed over the Col d’Aspin on its way to finishing in Bagnéres de Bigorre.
“These climbs have been good to me in the past, and I hope tomorrow they will again,” Martin continued.
Marcel Kittel’s stage win and Julian Alaphilippe’s stint in the white jersey as Best Young Rider has taken a bit of the pressure off of Martin. The pressure isn’t gone completely, however, as team director Brian Holm threatened to cut off Martin’s ears should he not finish in the top-10 overall in Paris.
While Alaphilippe seems destined to one-day contend for a Grand Tour, this year’s Grande Boucle is his first crack at a three-week race; how he will perform down the road is very much an unknown.
“So far, the race has been a great journey and a fantastic experience for me, people began to know me better and to cheer for me during the race, while I got to learn the trade in the Grand Tour peloton.,” Alaphilippe said after stage 7. “Now I will take things day by day, and although it will be difficult in the high mountains, I will do my best and help Dan Martin there.”
Similar types of riders, Alaphilippe and Martin create an unmistakeable one-two punch, finishing second and third atop the Mur de Huy at Fleche Wallonne in the spring. They have both shown great form during the Tour already, with second and fourth respectively on the punchy Stage 2 finish.
The duo was at it again near the top of the Col d’Aspin on Friday.
“[Alaphilippe] came to me with 3k to go and said ‘C’mon let’s attack together in the last kilometre,’” Martin said at the finish.
Things didn’t work out quite according to plan, as Alaphilippe attacked a bit it early, but Martin was able to counterattack once his teammate was brought back into the fold.
“It actually worked out good for me to have a try,” Martin said. “I got a gap on the top of the climb and Adam [Yates] went by me on the straight part and I didn’t get on his wheel. I saw behind the guys were chasing, so thought best to just back off a bit and not kill myself to make two, three seconds and as it turned out Adam also got hit by [the 1K-to-go banner], so had I been with him it might not have been so nice.”
While Martin has great sensations in his legs and a strong teammate in Alaphilippe to soften the blows from the other climbers on the tough uphills, a contender who hasn’t felt good in recent days is Alberto Contador (Tinkoff).
The Spaniard is still suffering from crashing on the opening two days, but while he may look weak at times, Martin said there was “no way” one should count out the two-time Tour champion.
“It’s Alberto, he can do anything,” Martin said.
Friday’s stage appeared not to be tough enough with the Col d’Aspin the only difficult climb on the docket, but Martin believes the next two stages could be the toughest of the entire Tour.
“Nobody showed their hands, nobody really knows how good each other is,” Martin said. “We’re going on 36 hours in a week now. It’s going to take its toll and perhaps two of the hardest stages, well the two hardest stages of the race the next two days. I think that’s why everybody was a bit more subdued today and a bit more reserved and waiting for tomorrow.”