Tony Martin survives treacherous cobblestones to take yellow jersey
The German suffered a puncture before breaking away to take fourth stage
Etixx Quick Step team rider Tony Martin of Germany celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 4th stage of the 102nd edition of the Tour de France 2015 cycling race over 223.5km between Seraing, Belgium and Cambrai, France. Photo: Yoan Valat/PA
After three near misses in as many days, Tony Martin was finally zipped into the yellow jersey for the first time in his career following a determined late solo breakaway into Cambrai.
Martin finished on a team- mate’s bike after a puncture. His triumph means that Thibaut Pinot takes over the mantle of unluckiest man in the race. The Frenchman had two punctures in as many minutes to become the only general classification contender to lose time on a stage the peloton approached with extreme caution.
In a fiendishly tricky opening week of a Tour, seven teeth- loosening sectors of cobbles were the latest obstacle placed in front of the 191 remaining riders.
On a dry day, most coped admirably. And although Chris Froome lost the overall race lead to Martin, the Sky rider could see the positives of his team not having to defend it.
“Hopefully, the guys can have a bit of a rest over the next few days,” he said. “There’s a lot of racing to go and while Tony’s a good time triallist, he won’t be up there with us when we go into the mountains.”
A surface for specialists and a staple of the Paris-Roubaix classic, the risk of disaster on the hellish pavé of the north is huge, with riders engaging in all manner of reckless tomfoolery in their efforts to get to the front of the bunch approaching each sector.
With each uneven cobble or hole, a potential puncture, buckled wheel or broken clavicle in waiting. Tension is high and, with crowds sometimes lining each side of what are ostensibly dusty country lanes, barrelling along in the comparative safety of the gutter is not really an option.
These cyclists were picking up bad vibrations, and their filth-caked faces in the post- race “unsaddling” enclosure were a sight to behold.
For most general classification contenders, this was a stage to put safety first, which will have frustrated experts such as Geraint Thomas, Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet, who had to concentrate on riding in the service of their team leaders instead of the pursuit of individual glory.
Sagan finished third, just ahead of Avermaet, while Thomas also finished in a main bunch of 35, which almost certainly contained the winner of this Tour.
We can only surmise how the race could have unfolded if they had been given free rein, but Martin’s power as a time-triallist meant there was no catching him once he had leapt off the front of the leading bunch and zoomed off into the distance.
Martin held on by three seconds, punching the air triumphantly at having ticked a long overdue box on his already impressive palmarès.
Having been taken to hospital after gingerly finishing a stage he almost certainly should have been forced to abandon on medical advice, Fabian Cancellara was, for the second time this year, found to have two broken lower vertebrae and forced to withdraw.
If this was, as seems likely, his final Tour there is something poignantly foolhardy about a courageous veteran nicknamed “Spartacus” going out ashen-faced, bloodied and defiant while wearing the tattered and dirty maillot jaune of race leader.
A day that promised so much chaos failed to deliver, and thick dust rather than mud and its accompanying carnage was the peloton’s chief tormenter.
The ravenousness with which riders snatched proffered drinks on exiting each new purgatory and arrowed them towards open mouths was telling.
So, after four stages, Martin is finally in yellow and seems likely to remain in it until Friday at least.
After fascinating, tense and often fraught racing, stage five should be one for the sprinters to contest the first mass bunch finish as the Tour reaches the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in history and rolls into Amiens, the capital of the Somme. – (Guardian Service)