The refreshing audacity of Guillaume Martin

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Somebody had to do something to liven up the race. Just like the day before it, stage 4 of the 2020 Tour de France had been a largely tedious affair — a long, controlled day of Deceuninck-QuickStep leading the bunch around south east France before inevitably tugging on the rope that bound the sextet up the road.

But unlike the flat run-in a day earlier, stage 4 had an uphill finish — surely the perfect venue for some late fireworks. And yet, apart from a short-lived dig from one-time GC contender Pierre Rolland (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), no such aggression was forthcoming. The tempo set by the Jumbo-Visma pairing of Wout van Aert and Sep Kuss left all and sundry unwilling or unable to test their legs. All bar Guillaume Martin (Cofidis).

With a little more than 500 metres to go in the stage, Martin launched a stinging attack from ninth wheel, opening a sizeable gap in impressively short order. For one exhilarating but fleeting moment, it appeared the 27-year-old was on his way to a maiden Tour de France stage victory.

It took one of the pre-race favourites, Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), to close Martin down. But even then, the Frenchman wasn’t done. With 250 metres to go, he was the first to launch his sprint. Only Roglic and Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) were able to finish ahead of him.

“I couldn’t quite pull it off,” Martin said after the stage, “but I would have regretted it if I hadn’t attacked in the last 500 metres. I had to try because I was feeling so good.”

Martin’s audacious third-place finish puts him fifth on GC, ahead of Grand Tour winners like defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos), Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos). It’s hardly a surprise to see Martin riding so well — he came into the Tour in sparkling form and with the confidence to match.

Since the season restart he’s finished third at the Mont Ventoux Challenge, eighth at the Tour de l’Ain (including fourth on the final summit finish), and a stellar third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

“After the coronavirus lockdown, things really changed for me, which I was able to demonstrate at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and I feel that good again here, too,” Martin said. “Finishing right up at the front on the first mountain stage at the Tour de France is very encouraging for the rest of the race.”

Martin (right) was third at the recent Dauphiné.

Martin’s main objective in his fourth Tour de France is a stage victory. “Depending on scenario”, though, he’d also love “to secure a high overall finish”. Fair enough too — in the past three years, Martin has finished 23rd, 21st and 12th at the Tour — an improvement every year. In 2020, a top-10 finish seems well within his reach.

“Guillaume has been feeling really good for several days now, and he’s keen to go on the attack,” said Cofidis general manager Cédric Vasseur. “But it’s going to continue to be a case of being patient, as the Tour de France is race of elimination.”

For many, winning stages and going for a good GC result are competing aims. It’s common to see riders kick in the clutch in the final week, skipping risky attacks in favour of securing a strong GC result. Hopefully Martin doesn’t shelve his aggression in favour of a more conservative strategy. His attack on stage 4 was a much-needed tonic and more of the same will surely benefit the race.

It’s too early to say that this year’s Tour will be defined by heavily controlled and predictable racing, but the warning signs are there. For years, Team Sky/Ineos was lambasted by fans for its ride-to-the-numbers approach and its penchant for riding a crushing tempo in the mountains. The British team doesn’t seem to have the firepower to do the same in 2020, but Jumbo-Visma does. And based on what we’ve seen from the Dutch team since the season restart, it’s something we can expect to see plenty more of for the rest of the Tour.

So far it’s been refreshing to see anyone but Ineos riding a suffocating pace on the front in the mountains, but for how long? How long until we get sick of watching Jumbo-Visma do the very same?

Thankfully for fans of aggressive, impulse racing, there’s much still to look forward to at this year’s Tour de France. The race is still led by one of the sport’s biggest entertainers in Alaphilippe, a man who almost single-handedly turned last year’s Tour from “yet another Ineos win” into the most entertaining race in years.

Then there’s Tadej Pogacar, the 21-year-old Slovenian prodigy lurking ominously in fourth overall after his second place on the race’s first uphill finish. Based on his three stage wins at last year’s Vuelta, and his form so far this week, he seems likely to bring an aggressive flavour to the race.

Nairo Quintana is floating around near the top of the GC pile too, as are Thibaut Pinot and Adam Yates — all three are willing and able to go on the attack.

And then there’s Martin, the man with a Masters of Philosophy and the author of “Socrates by Bike”. We can only hope that his performance on stage 4 was a portent of things to come; that as the Tour progresses we see more of the man in red, riding with hard-earned confidence, taking it to the biggest names in the sport.

“Today gave us confidence … and proved that Guillaume has good legs,” Vasseur said after stage 4. “We saw him racing alongside the best riders in the world. Judging by how far he’s come in these past few weeks, we can only be optimistic as the Tour continues.”

Yes indeed.

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