Returning successfully to a race he won overall in 2013, Dan Martin raced to stage victory and the overall lead in the Volta a Catalunya in Spain on Wednesday.
The Irishman bided his time early on during the final climb to La Molina, but then moved to the fore inside the final kilometre. He answered an attack by two-time Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), then attacked hard and drew clear.
The world's top riders chased behind but Martin continued to gain time, hitting the line two seconds ahead of double Tour winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and top American stage race rider Tejay Van Garderen.
Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) was another unable to match Martin's pace and finished eighth, 12 seconds back.
“With the headwind it was very tactical. It was wait, wait, wait and then when I saw 500 metres to go, I know I can do that as fast as anybody,” Martin said after the stage. “I just had to go all out for 500 metres. I was quite confident to win but then my legs were just dying. It’s the altitude . . . it is difficult to do an effort like this. But I’m really, really happy.”
Martin moved to the Etixx-QuickStep team over the winter. It is bigger than his previous Cannondale team, and has more strength in depth. He said that was a factor. “The team was incredible all day, they looked after me. They gave me the belief to win the stage.”
The success is his second this year. He won a stage in the Tour of Valencia in February, but was then sick during the Tour of Oman. As a result of that, he and the team decided to scrap his participation in Tirreno-Adriatico, with Martin spending time instead training hard in the mountains in advance of Catalunya.
He begins tomorrow’s toughest stage six seconds ahead of Contador and eight up on Bardet. Van Garderen is 12 seconds back.
Martin didn’t want to speculate about his chances of winning the race overall, but knows he has the backing to mount a strong defence.
“This team really believes in me 100 per cent, they work 100 per cent for me,” he said. “That belief they give to me, that confidence, is really showing in the results.”
However things work out on Thursday, he’s in superb form and looking good in the run up to his major spring objective, April’s Ardennes Classics.