Sunday, July 7, 2013

Thrilled to apologize and report that Stage 9 was anything but boring

Animate. Animate. Animate.

Dan Martin, as seen on Twitter
We're relieved to admit that we might have jumped the gun and are happy to report that this might not turn out to be a repeat of the summer of Wiggins. Last year, Sky's Sir Bradley Wiggins took the lead on the first mountain stage of the Tour de France, built a lead on the next day's time trial and cruised to victory two weeks later. He went on to win the Olympic gold medal. Victory after victory for Wiggins and Sky got a little bit boring and predictable.

Lord Wiggins' lieutenant last year, Chris Froome, seemed poised to repeat the script. Sky dominated on Stage 8, riding the other hopefuls into submission. Their dominance was so thorough that it forced teams to get aggressive for Stage 9, which led to one of the most entertaining mountain stages since Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo got tangled on a little girl's souvenir bag in 2003.

The biggest threat following Saturday, Alejandro Valverde, marshaled the formidable forces of the Movistar team, setting a pace that shed all of Froome's lieutenants, including second-place Richie Porte. The strategy seemed to have two prongs. Young climber Nairo Quintana would attack on the final climb and ride away. Failing that, the group would stay together, and Valverde would outsprint Froome to pick up a few seconds.

At the time it could have delivered the fatal blow, though, Movistar let Froome off the hook. Quintana took three exploratory pokes, jumping off the front. Froome responded quickly, and Quintana backed off. The remainder of the top 10 followed.

But Dan Martin of Garmin and Jakob Fuglsang of Astana sensed the hesitation and attacked. They rode over the top of La Hourquette d'Ancizan, then worked together until the final kilometer. Winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year, Martin took off at 400 meters and finished off a well-deserved win for Garmin.

Martin was the last bullet that Garmin fired Sunday. They were more aggressive than Movistar and ultimately more successful. The first to attack were David Millar and Ramonas Navardauskas on the first climb. Tom Danielson attacked on the second. Adopted St. Louisan Ryder Hesjedal gave it a go but cracked on the fourth climb. In the end, though, the team was rewarded for its aggression.

"We were both giving it everything we could. It's an incredible team effort. All day, we made the race," Martin told the pool reporter behind the victory podium.

The end result: Martin moved up to eighth overall, only one of the top 10 lost ground,  and none gained time on Froome. Surprisingly, the man left behind was Porte, who started the day second but finished more than 17 minutes back. So, at least Sky won't repeat its 1-2 finish in Paris of last year. Valverde gained no time but took over second. Belkin's Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam are third and fourth, respectively.

But the moral: Sky are vulnerable. Movistar, Saxo, Garmin and surprisingly Belkin can gang up on the British team. The tactic might not work, but it would make the racing wildly entertaining up the Ventoux, Alpe d'Huez and all points before and after.

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