Daniel Martin of UAE Team Emirates has taken the victory in stage 6 of the Tour de France. The Irishman fended off the challenges of Pierre Latour and Alejandro Valverde, taking the win on the tough uphill climb of Mûr de Bretagne Guerlédan after a day that saw Dion Smith get back into the breakaway.
Despite being the shortest of the road stages so far, the 181km between Brest and Mûr de Bretagne Guerlédan could well be considered the hardest so far. The stage featured less categorised climbs than stage 5, but the climb of Mûr de Bretagne – to be tackled twice – would make for a very interesting final 20km or so; almost certainly guaranteeing that the sprinters would be ruled out with the exception of someone like Peter Sagan.
Dion Smith back in the break
The break of the day once again established itself very early and with the blessing of the peloton, and Dion Smith was back in the move for Wanty-Groupe Gobert. Fabien Grellier and Damien Gaudin joined him from Direct Energie along with Anthony Turgis of Cofidis and Laurent Pichon of Fortuneo-Samsic. Their lead quickly built up towards the 3 minute mark as Patrick Bevin of BMC Racing moved to his customary early-stage position at the front of the peloton to organise the bunch.
The first categorised climb arrived after 44km of racing, and with Toms Skujins back in the peloton and not contesting the points it was an opportunity for Dion Smith to regain the lead in the king of the mountains classification. As the riders approached the Côte de Ploudiry the break’s lead grew to upwards of six minutes. But Dion Smith was not going to get things his own way as on the climb an attack from Grellier forced Smith to chase. At the top of the Ploudiry Smith played a strong tactical game to take the 2 points at the top of the climb, putting him just 1 point behind Skujins.
While the first climb was contested fiercely between the two riders, the single climb on the category 4 climb of the Côte de Roc’h Trévézel was not fought for; and Smith was free to take the point that put him level with the polka dot jersey of former teammate Toms Skujins.
Quick-Step Floors light the fuse
It was interesting to note that Quick-Step Floors were paying a bit closer attention to the goings on at the front of the peloton. Initially they appeared to be just supporting BMC’s presence at the front of the pack, but then with around 105km to go the blue train put in a massive surge of pace to try and split the peloton. It took a couple of kilometres but eventually the gaps began to open up between groups as BMC Racing joined the fun at the front of the peloton.
What transpired for the break was a haemorrhaging of time as what was a 10 minute lead for the Smith group was smashed back to a lead of less than 6 minutes with 100km to go. Three primary groups had developed behind the break, with Ilnur Zakarin and Katusha-Alpecin and Nairo Quintana of Movistar in the second group, while in the third group LottoNL-Jumbo had riders en masse chasing for Primoz Roglic.
Still the pace was piled on from the group containing Quick-Step Floors but the second group were able to regain contact. The LottoNL-Jumbo group were still struggling to get back on board, with Jack Bauer of Mitchelton-Scott in their group and still 1.30mins back on the first peloton. They would gradually peg back the time deficit though and regain contact with the peloton once more.
Breakaway allegiances fracture as Gaudin launches attack
All the while Dion Smith and his breakaway companions continued to work their way through the stage, leading the way as Quick-Step Floors led the chase. The time gap with 67km remaining was down to 1.45mins, but it would stabilise at about 2 minutes, before dropping again towards the intermediate sprint at 46km to go.
Laurent Pichon was eager to mop up the points but then Damien Gaudin made an attack straight after the sprint. It was a move that would be tricky to peg back if they allowed Gaudin too much room, and for a while there was a bit of limbo between them. Meanwhile back in the peloton Alexander Kristoff took the points for sixth place ahead of Gaviria and Sagan. Gaudin had gone up the road though and it would take until 31km to go before the break finally brought him back into the fold. At this point the break’s lead over the bunch was down to 1.32mins and it was uncertain whether the break would withstand the peloton to the first climb of the Mûr de Bretagne.
Their chances weren’t helped when Fabien Grellier then launched another attack, dropping Anthony Turgis and Damien Gaudin as Smith and Pichon bridged across. On the front of the peloton Quick-Step Floors were a constant, but so too were the likes of Dimension Data and the pace was ramping up as with less than 20km to go the break had just 30 seconds in hand.
Smith caught as Bauer takes chance
Fabien Grellier wasn’t content to stay with his breakaway companions though, and he launched another attack to try and gap the rest. Behind him Dion Smith dup deep to try and withstand the chasing peloton; he was the last man standing as the rest of the break were mopped up. Behind the two stage leaders Team Sky were just beginning to ramp up proceedings and they just caught Smith with 17km to go; quickly spitting Smith out the back after a big day in the saddle.
Grellier continued to dig deep to try and stay clear, but Toms Skujins was well positioned to strike and take the points with 400m to go as Grellier was finally caught. Skujins smoothly moved away to take the points and guarantee more time in the polka dot jersey. But then an attack went clear from Jack Bauer of Mitchelton-Scott. The New Zealander caught many riders by surprise as he took second over the climb and then proceeded with his attack.
With 13km to go Bauer’s lead was at 29 seconds, but then with BORA-Hansgrohe hitting the front the gap then started to drop again to 12 seconds with 7km to go. Bauer was committed and determined to make the most of his opportunity, hitting 65kph in places towards the run in to the final climb. While the pace was all on for the peloton, however, Tom Dumoulin of Team Sunweb ran into mechanical trouble at exactly the wrong moment. Dumoulin was brought to a stop and had to swap bikes with a teammate, then time trial back on board if only he could.
Martin denies Latour stage win
Meanwhile with 5km to go Bauer still led the way with 15 seconds still in hand. Bauer lasted to the foot of the ‘pre-climb’ with 4km to go, where BORA-Hansgrohe led the way with Team Sky also in attendance. Dumoulin was still having to chase furiously to get back on board, looking in trouble for the first time in the Tour de France. He was 31 seconds behind the peloton, while at the front of the peloton with 1.4km to go Daniel Oss of BORA-Hansgrohe and Julian Alaphilippe of Quick-Step Floors hit the front, but then Richie Porte attacked with 1.2km to go, but was countered by Daniel Martin of UAE Team Emirates.
The Irishman had been hidden all day, but he timed his move perfectly. Geraint Thomas of Team Sky tried to go but didn’t have the legs to match Martin. Behind him Romain Bardet was among those to be losing ground, while Richie Porte led the GC contenders behind Martin; until Pierre Latour of AG2R La Mondiale attacked himself. It was Latour vs Martin for the stage, but despite Latour’s late charge, he’d left it just a little too late and the UAE Team Emirates rider claimed the honours. Alejandro Valverde took third place, with Alaphilippe fourth. Chris Froome conceded 5 seconds to the group containing Porte, Yates, Quintana and Nibali, but for Romain Bardet it was a little worse as he arrived home 31 seconds behind Daniel Martin and Tom Dumoulin finished 53 seconds adrift after a tough chase with teammate and white jersey wearer Søren Kragh Andersen.
Jack Bauer was the first Kiwi home alongside Sep Vanmarcke and Tony Martin, with Tom Scully crossing the line next with Imanol Erviti, Kristijan Koren and Timo Roosen.
Dion Smith is now sitting third in the king of the mountains classification at 4 points, level with second placed Sylvain Chavanel; and just 2 points behind Skujins.