THE cobbles produced drama and chaos at last year’s Tour de France and there was more of the same yesterday as the peloton rattled over seven sectors of the fearsome pavé. In the end it was Tony Martin, the German who has been so close to the yellow jersey since the race started on Saturday, who won the stage and inherited the lead from Chris Froome.
Remarkably, Martin won on a borrowed bike. He punctured on the final section of cobbles, with 13 kilometres remaining, handily close to his Etixx-QuickStep team-mate Matteo Trentin. The Italian didn’t hesitate, stopping with Martin and, with the team cars held up on the cobbles, giving him his bike.
“I was sitting too high and the brakes were the wrong way round,” said Martin.
But, on the unfamiliar bike, he chased hard to rejoin the leaders, caught his breath, and attacked. The setback maybe played to his advantage, he said later, because nobody followed when he jumped away.
“Maybe everybody saw I had a flat tyre and had to change bike. Maybe the guys were thinking I was on the limit. I was on the limit, but I was willing to take risks,” Martin added. His attack was certainly a risk, but there was no reaction. “Maybe nobody expected such an early attack – around four kilometres to go. But it was just the right moment.”
Despite losing the yellow jersey – or perhaps because he lost it – Froome was one of the big winners here. Having crashed out on the cobbled stage last year, he rode well to remain in contact with Vincenzo Nibali, who built the foundations for his win last year on the cobbles.
Nibali tried hard to do the same this time, attacking on the final few sections, stringing them out behind him, but not quite forcing the split that his efforts deserved.
Froome will be happy to concede the lead to Martin, who is no threat overall. It will spare his team, Team Sky, the job of defending the lead. He now sits second overall, 12 seconds down, with Alberto Contador the next of the main favourites, another 36 seconds back.
There were moments when Contador and Nairo Quintana, the fourth big favourite, were distanced, but each fought back. In the end no real damage was done. The big losers were John Degenkolb, who made it a German one-two on the stage but was furious at not winning, and Thibaut Pinot, the young Frenchman who was third last year, who lost his temper as he was hampered by mechanical problems – a flat battery in his electric gear-changer.
It was Martin’s day, but his whole team was ecstatic, especially after messing up on Sunday’s stage, when they packed the front group with bodies then conspired not only to lose a stage they should have won, with Mark Cavendish, but also missing an opportunity to take yellow with Martin.
Cavendish felt especially guilty, but he was a different man after this fourth stage, beaming and hugging his teammates. This despite it being a stage he could have won – he was in the leading group, placing 12th on the rise to the finish in Cambrai, on the race’s first day on French roads. Cavendish should have his chance today with the finish in Amiens suiting him.
“It’s a rollercoaster,” said Martin. “The last few days I missed the yellow by a few seconds.
“My main goal was to get it on the first day. I was super upset that I missed it. I came closer but I never had it. The pressure was getting more and more. I had all the support from the team. I really really wanted to get the yellow for me but for the team. Crossing the line first for the stage and also having the yellow now makes me super happy, knowing I can give everything back to the team what they gave me during the last days.”
A German in yellow could be good news back home, with German TV broadcasting the Tour live for the first time in three years, having boycotted it following all the doping scandals. “The pressure was high to show the German fans something nice,” said Martin.