Dan Martin turned in one of his strongest ever rides in the mountains so far to come within a whisker of both the stage win and the overall in the Tour of Catalonia.
On the hardest stage of the race, Martin attacked from the main group of favourites with around six kilometres to go to the summit finish at Pal ski station. Ahead of him was just one rider from a day-long break, Julian Sanchez, a little-known pro from the Contentpolis-Ampo team, with around a minute?s gap.
Martin?s move on the final seven kilometre climb instantly started reducing Sanchez?s advantage and simultaneously put Alejandro Valverde, the race leader, into trouble. At one point race radio said the advantage for Martin over Vavlerde had risen to 25 seconds – more than enough to make the Garmin rider leader on the road of Spain?s third biggest stage race. And Martin was steadily pulling back time on Sanchez, too.
?It all caught me a bit by surprise,? Valverde said later ?I knew Martin was strong but not that strong.?
?I had to react, and quickly, to get him back. It only just worked out.?
In a tense finale, whilst Martin closed the gap slowly but surely on Sanchez, Valverde looked around for support behind.
His team-mate Xabier Zandio (Caisse D?Epargne) led Valverde til about three kilometres to go, and after Zandio cracked, Valverde went for it alone.
Come the finish, Sanchez just hung on for his team?s first victory of the season – and his first in seven years as a pro. Martin was second, six seconds back, with Valverde at eight.
Overall, Martin is now second overall, just 15 seconds down on Valverde. But with the most mountainous stages now over and done with, it could be difficult to dislodge the Caisse D?Epargne pro between here and the race finish on Sunday.
Whatever happens, Catalonia represents a major step up for Martin, and – should he remain on the overall podium – it would be his first top-three result in a ProTour stage race. A great performance in any case, and all looking very good for the summer.