Talking Tactics: Why Tony Martin’s near miss was the best race of 2013

In our most recent podcast, Panache and I discussed our ten favourite races of 2013. We then asked you, our VeloVoices readers, to vote for your best race of the year. Well, the votes are in and the winner was … Tony Martin’s near stage-long solo escape on stage six of the Vuelta.

Here’s how the voting broke down between our ten shortlisted races:

1. Vuelta stage 6 – 29%

2. Paris-Roubaix – 23%

3. Liege-Bastigne-Liege – 13%

4. Tour of Poland stage 4 (Taylor Phinney’s solo attack) – 9%

5. Tour de France stage 9 (the one where Movistar and Saxo-Tinkoff isolated Froome) – 8%

6-10. Others – 18%

As a reminder, here are the closing moments of our poll-winning stage.

Tactical analysis

Tony Martin launched a solo attack the moment the flag dropped on this flattish 175km stage from Guijuelo to Caceres – he later said he wanted to use it as training for defending his time trial rainbow jersey in Florence a few weeks later – and spent all but the final 20 metres at the front of the race before being swallowed up within touching distance of the line.

Martin used this race as training for the Worlds time trial - which he would go on to win (Image: Toscana 2013)

Martin used this stage as training for the Worlds time trial – which he would go on to win (Image: Toscana 2013)

At first it looked like a routine catch, with the German’s lead slashed to under a minute with 20km to go. But then the sprinters’ teams refused to commit any further, perhaps deterred by a combination of the day’s brisk pace – a fraction under 45kph average – and knowing the finish was slightly uphill.

The extremely mountainous nature of this year’s Vuelta meant that none of the top sprinters were present. As a result, the quality and depth of the lead-out trains was poor by grand tour standards. Throughout the race, they struggled to contain breakaways and reel them in at the end of a hard day’s racing. This was one of many days where a break succeeded or almost succeeded because the sprint teams were relatively short of firepower to bring back a strong, determined rider or group – like, say, the world time trial champion.

Consequently Martin, who was in full-on time trial mode by now and determined to squeeze every last effort from his tiring body, proved an elusive catch. At 10km to go, he was still 16 seconds ahead, and for a while the gap grew rather than shrunk.

Why was this? With the sprinters’ teams unwilling to burn their matches too early and the Astana team of red jersey Vincenzo Nibali having no reason to press on, the chase was disorganised and perhaps a little complacent. Movistar and Cannondale took to the front half-heartedly, but Martin’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step also played their role, sending men to the front not to support the chase but to disrupt its organisation. Good team tactics, that.

At 4km to go, Martin still held a slender eight-second lead. Argos-Shimano moved up the line, but this wasn’t their A-train which had dominated at the Tour de France, and they lacked the numbers and strength to bridge the gap to the leader. At 2km, they had still made no inroads, even with Orica-GreenEDGE and Lotto-Belisol sending a couple of men each forwards. Again, OPQS pushed a man up front to run interference. But the reality was that no one team could take control, with the sprinters only able to set up two-man lead-outs rather than the usual four or five.

A fast but tricky right-hand turn with 1,500 metres remaining worked further in Martin’s favour. Alone, he took the ideal line through the corner, while behind him several riders overcooked it and ran wide, disrupting the momentum of the pursuit momentarily.

For a while it looked like Martin might just complete this most unlikely of victories. Under the flamme rouge the gap was six seconds, but with Martin visibly tiring on the finishing incline and an equally exhausted peloton winding up for a chaotic finish it was RadioShack-Leopard’s Fabian Cancellara who led the final charge. Saxo-Tinkoff’s Michael Morkov – clearly visible in the red-and-white jersey of the Danish national champion – clung to his wheel and used the Swiss powerhouse as his own lead-out. Martin was swamped in the final 20 metres as Morkov timed his jump perfectly to win.

Morkov wins, but the day was all about Tony Martin (Image: Vuelta a Espana)

Morkov wins, but the day was all about Tony Martin (Image: Vuelta a Espana)

What made this race so great?

More than one in four of you thought this was the best race of the year. But why?

Put simply, it ticked pretty much every box you would want from a great race. An underdog – and a popular, likeable one at that – holding off the might of the peloton. A genuinely uncertain will-he-won’t-he chase which left the result in doubt until the final few pedal-strokes. A result – or, in this case, a valiant near-miss – that came not out of good fortune or with the permission of the peloton, but was hard-fought both by the hare and the hounds.

Make no mistake: this was not a case of the peloton biding their time to make the catch at the opportune moment. This was the bunch – all 190-odd of them – in full-blown panic at the realisation that an apparently straightforward pursuit was being taken out of their hands by a single rider of the highest class. Yes, there was a reluctance from the sprint teams to commit too much too soon to the chase, and yet Martin’s pace did not afford them the luxury of holding men back for the lead-out. In the final few hundred metres, it’s clear even from the head-on shot that no one has a working lead-out and the final sprint is effectively reduced to a free-for-all.

It takes a very special rider to do that to the peloton in the face of such insurmountable odds. Tony Martin is a very special rider. And this was a very special race in a year which had more than its fair share of them. Good choice, people!

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