Tour de France 2014: Tony Gallopin delivers French fireworks as Tony Martin goes solo

Nibali relinquishes yellow jersey to save energy for today’s mountain stage

With the Tour de France

The first major mountain-top finish in the 2014 Tour de France today could see a host of fireworks of the two-wheeled variety, as well as the more conventional ones the French always like to ignite on Bastille Day.

Yesterday’s second stage through the Vosges saw all the major favourites ease back in order to conserve their strength for today’s tougher mountain stage, with victory going to lone breakaway Tony Martin. Top-placed favourite Vincenzo Nibali, meanwhile, took the strategic option  of ceding the overall lead to France’s Tony Gallopin.

Gallopin is not considered a real threat overall, and is not expected to hold the lead for more than a few days at most. However, for Nibali – who in turn retained a healthy two minute margin over the rest of the overall favourites – the Frenchman’s Lotto-Belisol squad will be an invaluable ally in controlling the race in today’s arduous 161-kilometre mountain stage.

Seven classified climbs, culminating with the exceptionally steep first-category six-kilometres ascent to  La Planche des Belles Filles, look certain to see the Italian come under major pressure. Alberto Contador already took three seconds off the Sicilian’s lead in Saturday’s short, sharp uphill finish, and even before yesterday’s stage the Madrileno was warning he would stage another major attack today.

 

There is certainly a historical precedent for big changes overall on today’s final climb, situated deep in the Vosges mountains. La Planche des Belles Filles  was first tackled in the 2012 Tour, where after a dramatic show of collective strength by Team Sky, Chris Froome claimed the stage win,  while Sir Bradley Wiggins moved into yellow – and kept it all the way to Paris.

With Froome now absent, of those favourites present  this year, Nibali will be  feeling particularly encouraged, knowing he took fourth on the same climb in the  2012 Tour, seven seconds down on Froome, while Sky’s Richie Porte  was 13th, over a minute back.

However, comparisons with 2012 can only go so far: that July La Planche des Belles Filles was only preceded by two minor mountain climbs, rather than a full-scale series of ascents like in 2014. Porte, meanwhile, was working as a team helper for Wiggins and Froome, rather than racing for himself. Perhaps even more importantly, in 2012 Contador  – at the moment, albeit by a narrow advantage, currently looking the strongest of the Tour favourites in the mountains – was not present.

Frenchman Tony Gallopin puts on the yellow jersey Frenchman Tony Gallopin puts on the yellow jersey  

Yesterday’s stage win was claimed in impressive fashion by Mark Cavendish’s German team-mate Tony Martin, who shed his breakaway companion Alessandro de Marchi 60 kilometres from the line and then soloed to victory.

To some, Martin’s dropping of his breakaway companion with 90 minutes racing and two tough mountain climbs left to tackle might have seemed unwise. However, the 29-year-old is not unfamiliar with measuring his strength in this kind of long-distance, lone attack.

The multiple world time- trial champion came within a whisker of succeeding in a very similar stage-long lone move in the Vuelta a Espana last year, and in the Tour of the Basque Country this April he finally triumphed with another 11 kilometre lone break.

This time, though, the German’s move was much longer, starting in the dripping pinewoods of the Vosges mountains on the Cote de Markstein, then over the mist-shrouded summit of the Grand Ballon.

A long descent into warm sunshine – the first since the Tour left England a week ago – and a quick pound  across a series of leafy vineyards finally netted the German a fifth Tour stage win out of a possible nine for his country’s in this year’s Tour.

Tony Martin wins stage nine Tony Martin wins stage nine Appropriately enough, the city of Mulhouse is situated just a few dozen kilometres from the German border, and en route to his victory Martin –  nicknamed Der Panzerwagen (which translates to tank ) – was roared through villages with distinctly Germanic sounding names, such as Uffholtz, Wittelsheim and Lutterbach.

“Being so close to Germany, with so many fans from my country, made it very special,” said Martin, whose Omega Pharma-Quick Step team have won two stages in three days.

“There’s not so many guys in cycling can do  a move like this, but I have to, I’m not the kind of guy for big attacks and playing games. However, when I get the gap, I know that I can go really fast, not just for one hour like in a time-trial, but for three or four.”

Gallopin, meanwhile, gave the French  something to cheer for on today’s Bastille Day as the Lotto-Belisol  rider formed part of a 25-man chasing group which gained time on week-long leader Nibali.

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Gallopin’s group finished nearly five minutes ahead of Nibali and the main pack, giving him an overall advantage of 1 minute and 34 seconds on the Italian.

However, Gallopin’s chances of retaining the yellow jersey are thought to be minimal: last year the 25-year-old finished 58th in the Tour, his best ever Grand Tour finish  and he is not considered a top favourite by any stretch of the imagination. 

Even so, his spell in the lead starting today, Gallopin said, was “a dream come true.” Although he courteously thanked Nibali’s Astana team “for not chasing too hard behind so I could take the lead.

“I have no idea how long I will be able to hold the jersey for, the last time we went up La Planche des Belles Filles I lost two minutes on the leader and I’m already feeling tired after all today’s efforts. So I’ll try to enjoy wearing it for 14 July at least.”

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