With one day to go, the 29-year-old is just nine seconds off the podium.
Stage 6 of the Criterium du Dauphiné took the peloton from La Rochette and Méribel, over 141 kilometers, and it was nervous and action-packed, even more than the previous one, as everything was still open in the general classification, six riders being inside of less than one minute. Among them, Daniel Martin (4th) and Julian Alaphilippe (5th), who was also leading the white jersey rankings on the day he turned 24.
With five categorized climb on the course, including the one at the finish, it became obvious that many GC contenders will have a chance to make a move early, which they did, by sending some of their lieutenants in the huge break that took off just as the road began to rise. Laurens De Plus, the youngest World Tour rider this season, and triple ITT World Champion Tony Martin were there for Etixx – Quick-Step, and helped the group establish a maximum lead of three minutes, which began to drop on the Hors Catégorie Col de la Madeleine (17.2 kilometers, 7.9% average gradient).
On that climb, the toughest of the stage, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) attacked and was soon joined by five other men, including Fabio Aru (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Team Sky didn't give them too much space, just 30 seconds, and reeled in the six a few kilometers before the top. Later, Contador tried again and got a gap together with Aru and Romain Bardet (AG2R), who eventually left him behind and made contact with the break, while the Spaniard was being reabsorbed once again by the peloton.
A fast and furious pace of the escapees on the descent helped them extend their gap to 3:30, but once Tony Martin (who in the meantime returned to the bunch) stepped up to the front and pushed the pedal to the metal, it began to drop, so at the bottom of the final ascent (12.3 kilometers and 6.6% average gradient) the clock was showing less than three minutes between the first two groups. On Méribel, Bardet attacked and his countryman Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) responded, while Team Sky continued to set a relentless rhythm which led to many riders being distanced.
Inside the final kilometer of the stage, just as Pinot was outsprinting Bardet to take the win, Dan Martin surged ahead from the reduced yellow jersey group and only Chris Froome had a reaction, following the Etixx – Quick-Step rider, who finished third and grabbed four bonus seconds, which leave him in contention for a podium finish at the 68th edition of the Dauphiné, a feat no other Irish rider has achieved in the French race. Just a few seconds later, teammate Julian Alaphilippe rolled over the line in 9th place and made sure of keeping the white jersey.
"The day was very hard, and became even more difficult once Contador went full gas on La Madeleine. Not many were left in the peloton after cresting the top, but luckily we had Tony in the valley, who gave us a hand behind the escapees. Sky's tempo was hard on Méribel, so I just waited for the right moment to attack. It was the right decision to go inside the last kilometer, as I got a gap on Contador and the others and gained a few seconds. It's a pity that Barded jumped in the top 3 overall, but I'm ready to fight on Sunday, when I'll start with confidence what should be another aggressive stage. We will see what the day will bring", said Dan Martin, who is lying in fourth position, just nine seconds off the podium.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele