Tony Martin has pulled out of the Tour de France after the yellow jersey crashed in bizarre circumstances just inside the closing kilometre of stage six. While his Etixx-Quick Step team-mate, Zdenek Stybar, was powering to victory in Le Havre, Martin appeared to veer violently right for no apparent reason, barging into another rider who in turn took out Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana in a domino effect.
"He abandons," a spokesman said on Thursday night, meaning Britain's Chris Froome takes over once more as race leader.
Accelerating past on the outside, Froome narrowly avoided hitting the deck. He was clipped and sent into a speed-wobble but remained upright and eventually crossed the line unscathed but with a buckled wheel. Nibali initially blamed Froome for the crash and claimed to be “very angry”, but the Sky rider later visited the Astana team bus to have it out with his rival, who apologised upon seeing the incident on television. “Did we clear it all up?” said Nibali. “Yeah! We are not footballers, we are cyclists!”
As the various riders involved in the crash extricated themselves from the pile-up, it quickly became apparent that the maillot jaune had come off worst and it was later confirmed Martin had broken his collarbone. Riding home one-handed, Julian Vermote and Michal Kwiatkowski, his team-mates, pushed him over the line where he got the same time as the main bunch because the crash occurred inside the final 3km.
“I was extremely unlucky,” said Martin. “I can’t really remember what happened. I touched the wheel of the rider ahead of me. It’s the Tour, luck and bad luck are very close together. It’s often the way accidents happen. You’re not going that fast and then you fall over each other with all your weight.”
With its short, steep climb to a finishing straight that levels out for the final 400m, this race to Le Havre prompted considerable debate over who would prevail: sprinters or punchers. Such sharp ascents can prove tricky for out and out fastmen such as Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, but are relished by the likes of Peter Sagan, the Tinkoff-Saxo rider whose quick acceleration up small climbs made him odds-on favourite for the win.
Sadly, for the fourth time in five stages, the unfortunate Slovakian found one or two rivals too good, this time finishing second to former cyclo-cross rider Stybar, who made an impressive contribution to an increasingly weird week for Etixx-Quick Step.
This is French farce. In six stages, the Belgian team has had the mother of all internecine bust-ups and been publicly flamed by their owner. They have won two stages and narrowly missed out on two others. They have had a sporting director suspended by race organisers after footage emerged of him driving without a seatbelt. And now, having finally got Martin into the yellow jersey after two near-misses, the keystone Quick Steppers lose it sooner than you can say boo.
Before their incident-packed finish, the peloton had a little under 191 uneventful kilometres with which to contend, setting off from Abbeville in the Somme, heading to Dieppe and then making their way along the north-west coast to the port of Le Havre. On a route that proved the source of many aerial views of topaz seas lapping up against gleaming white cliff faces, the 188 remaining competitors were spared the downpours and violent buffeting feared by many and instead rode in glorious sunshine.
Cruising along after a three-man breakaway that at one point opened a gap of over five minutes, the early excitement within the peloton came in the form of a puncture for Martin and a minor crash for Movistar rider Alejandro Valverde, who slipped on gravel following a post-pee wheelspin. So far, so quiet.
Following the abandonment by their star sprinter, Nacer Bouhanni, the previous day, it was no surprise to see Cofidis revert to their old habit of justifying their otherwise futile existence by committing Kenneth van Bilsen to the escape party, where he was accompanied by Daniel Teklehaimanot and Perrig Quéméneur.
Teklehaimanot realised a lifelong ambition by securing the polka dot jersey, becoming the first black African in race history to wear it, while Bilsen’s late doomed solo effort ended inevitably with 3km to go. He was swallowed by the bunch before Stybar surged clear to take the win on a day of mixed fortunes for his team.
Etixx-Quickstep are not the only team being put through the wringer and have at least enjoyed plenty of success to go with their assorted misfortunes. Orica-GreenEdge, the team of British twins Adam and Simon Yates, has already lost three riders to broken bones, while their Tour debutant, Michael Matthews, struggles on despite two fractured ribs.
The Australian team would have been fancied to win Sunday’s team time trial from Vannes to Plumelec, but in a discipline where the clock stops when the fifth rider crosses the finish line, they will do well just to get five men down the starting ramp. “The team time trial was one of our goals,” mused one member of their backroom team. “Now with six riders, it’ll be a rest day before the rest day.”
Stage seven takes the peloton from Livarot, hosting the Tour for the first time and known for the pungency of its Graindorge cheese, to Fougères along a long and flat route that Etixx-Quick Step have earmarked as a final chance for Mark Cavendish to open his account before the race enters the mountains. In what has been a preposterously topsy-turvy week for them, absolutely anything could happen.
Meanwhile, Dan Martin came home in 47th position, two seconds down on the winning time, while Nicolas Roche and Sam Bennett came home 165th and 166th, three minutes and 20 seconds down on the stage winner.
Martin remains 7:52 off his namesake in the yellow jersey, Roche slipped nine places to 69th (at 16:54), while Bennett is 176th (at 46:52).