Martin's run of bad luck strikes again
Ireland's Dan Martin lost 76 seconds after being caught in a crash with 17 kilometres to go of yesterday's eighth stage of the Tour de France.
The UAE Team Emirates rider, winner of stage six on the Mur-de-Bretagne, was one of several riders to fall with Quick-Step Floors' Julian Alaphilippe and Tom Skujins in the polka-dot jersey also caught out.
Martin, with blood pouring from his elbow, quickly set off in pursuit of the peloton with several team-mates to help.
They got within 30 seconds but as the pace ramped up at the front, the gap soon began to grow again, with Martin left to rue an expensive tumble on a day when he will have been desperate to avoid trouble given today's treacherous stage.
Dylan Groenewegen followed up Friday's success in Chartres with a Bastille Day win in Amiens yesterday. The Lotto-NL Jumbo rider burst clear of world champion Peter Sagan and held off Lotto-Soudal's Andre Greipel and Quick-Step Floors' Fernando Gaviria before the latter pair were relegated for irregular sprinting.
BMC's Greg Van Avermaet retained the yellow jersey, and extended his lead by one second to seven over Team Sky's Geraint Thomas after nicking third place on the bonus sprint.
Ever since the 2018 Tour de France route was unveiled last October, there has been anticipation and fear in almost equal measure about the prospect of the peloton taking on today's ninth stage.
The infamous cobblestones - or pavés - of Paris-Roubaix are daunting enough for the big, strong classics specialists who take on that race every spring. Not for nothing is Paris-Roubaix known as the Hell of the North.
But for the waif-like climbers of the Tour de France peloton - small, skinny men, some of them weighing under 60kg - these bone-juddering cobbled sectors are the stuff of nightmares; a disaster waiting to happen.
That the organisers saw fit to pack 15 of them into today's stage, amounting to almost 22km of pavé - the most the Tour has ever tackled in one go - makes today's stage a bit special.
"It is a day when maybe you cannot win the Tour but for sure you can lose it," says Servais Knaven, a directeur sportif (DS) for Team Sky and a man who won Paris-Roubaix himself back in 2001.
Knaven is the man who has been tasked with coming up with a strategy to mitigate against any possible disasters that could befall Thomas, just six seconds off the maillot jaune, or Chris Froome, who is a further minute or so behind.
It has been a huge logistical undertaking. Knaven has been hitting his phone book for months, arranging for friends in Belgium to help out on the day. He says Sky will have "around 50" roadside helpers on the route, 40 of whom will not be Team Sky staff.
"At the end of every section we will have two people, one with wheels and one with bottles," he explains. "The guys at the first two sections can get to the last two sections and double up, but we have to have a specialist team at all the others.
"On the longer sections, every 600 or 700 metres, we will have a person with wheels. We try to minimise the risk."
Other teams are likely to employ similar tactics, although as ever Sky like to take things to extremes. They are shipping in special bikes just for this stage, Pinarello K10s, with automatic rear suspension.
"With the rear suspension we don't need to run the tyres too soft," Sky mechanic Gary Blem told Cycling Weekly.
"It's been a hell of a lot of work for us," he said. "Some [riders] will use extra grip tape, some want extra shifters. Froome always uses the shifter up on the top of his bars and on the hoods themselves."
The question is, will all the planning pay off? That, ultimately, will depend on the rider, and on a certain amount of luck.
Thomas, of course, is something of a classics specialist himself. Or at least he used to be before he started to concentrate on grand tour racing. He is a bit lighter now than he was in his classics pomp in 2014, when he finished eighth in the Tour of Flanders and seventh in Roubaix on successive weekends.
But assuming he does not go down or suffer ill-timed mechanical issues or punctures, the Welshman could certainly expect to gain time on some of his GC rivals today, the small guys such as Adam Yates, Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte.
"I've got a bit of a sore a*** already, so the thought of all those cobbles coming up isn't the most exciting, but you have to grit your teeth and go for it," Thomas said yesterday. "It's going to be a day to make your bones rattle. The whole day is going to be full-on. Full gas."
As for Froome, the six-time grand tour winner famously crashed in wet weather at the 2014 Tour, before the race even reached the cobblestones. He looked far more assured the following year, though, and says he is looking forward to today's test.
Survival will be "the first priority", insists Team Sky's lead DS, Nico Portal. But if everything goes well, if Froome and Thomas reach the final sectors upright and towards the front, and if they have the legs, they will be encouraged to try to follow the classics specialists such as Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet: "For sure, why not? If G goes with Sagan it's perfect. It makes the race harder for the GC guys behind. But the most important thing is not to lose time."
With the weather set fair, at least one potential hazard has been removed. Wet, slippery cobblestones ramp up the risk factor exponentially. But Portal still reckons the organisers are playing with fire today.
"I mean, I'm French. I'm happy to see a bit of Roubaix," he reflects. "But making this one day so, so much riskier than the others? Imagine if you have, like, five GC guys who go down - Froome, Nibali, Thomas, etc, etc. That's not good for the race, for the public. It's going to be stressful, that's for sure."