It was a day of mixed emotions for Mark Cavendish’s Etixx-Quick Step team. Their Czech all-rounder Zydenek Stybar took a superbly calculated lone stage win but their race leader, Tony Martin, crashed badly within 500 metres of the line and abandoned the race with a broken collarbone. Britain’s Chris Froome now takes over as leader, 13 seconds ahead of the American Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing.
Amid scenes of jubilation at the finish line as some team members celebrated their second win in three days, other riders from the squad formed a line to help escort Martin, riding one-handed, to reach the line. As the crash took place within 3km of the finish, regulations mean all riders involved receive the same time.
Martin went through the ceremonial protocol of receiving his latest yellow jersey, shaking hands but with his left arm kept clasped across his lower chest.
The pile-up came at the end of what had been – for once in this tumultuous opening week of the Tour – a crash-free stage as the peloton wound its way along the Channel coastline in warm, dry weather with the near lack of forecast crosswinds rendering much-predicted splits in the bunch unviable.
Martin’s crash came as the bunch slowed on the short, steady final climb of Côte d’Ingouville to the finish of the stage, with his front wheel seemingly twisting underneath him. “I don’t know how it happened,” Martin said later. “Often when you’re not going so fast the crashes are worse because you fall more heavily.”
Martin, who was not considered to be a contender for overall victory since he is not a strong in the mountains, becomes the second race leader to abandon after the Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara fractured two vertebrae in his lower back in Monday’s crash-marred third stage.
“There’s a real double feeling in the team,” Etixx-Quick Step’s Stybar said. “It’s amazing for me, I can’t believe I’ve won a Tour stage, but... I feel very sorry for Tony.”
Stybar said it had been a roller-coaster week for the German: “He lost the opening time trial” – one of Martin’s key objectives – “then was only a second away from leading for two days, and finally got the victory and yellow jersey on a stage [on Tuesday to Cambrai] he probably didn’t dare to dream about winning. Then today, he crashed. But this is the Tour de France, it’s crazy, you never know what’ll happen round each corner.”
“It’s a bit bittersweet,” added Cavendish, who said he had hesitated between waiting for Martin or trying to go for the sprint himself. “We’ve won it with Styby but I hope Tony is all right.”
Froome narrowly avoided being caught up in the knock-on effects of the crash, being forced to unclip one pedal and suffering a grazed knee as the bunch ground to a halt. But two of his main challengers, defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana, both fell heavily.
“They tell us we’ve got to be at the front all the time and then 500 metres [from the line] something like this happens,” Nibali grumbled. “It’s crazy. There was a wave of riders falling and I got caught.” His injuries were minor, while Quintana has hurt an elbow.
Nibali thought that the Briton had been responsible for the crash – he was not and the Italian later realised it – and Froome took the unusual step of going over to the Astana team bus to talk to his rival.
“There was some confusion as to who caused the crash, wanted to clear that up with ... @vincenzonibali (definitely wasn’t me!)” Froome tweeted. “I hope everybody, especially Tony Martin, is okay.”
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