It’s been a tough edition thus far, but the Irishman is still determined to make the most out of his participation.
Mont Ventoux, one of the most gruesome and leg-sapping climbs in cycling, was on Thursday's map, when the whole of France was celebrating Bastille Day, while the Grande Boucle peloton was gearing up for what was looking to be as one of the crucial days of this year's race. Shortened by six kilometers due to gusts of wind exceeding 125 kilometers, the climb was still considered an excruciating one, with the road to Chalet-Reynard averaging 8.8% over 10 kilometers. Even so, despite this ogre of a climb waiting at the finish, more than a dozen riders were keen on going in the break, Iljo Keisse being among the ones who infiltratred in that group.
The 33-year-old – a debutant in the biggest cycling race in the world – was a valuable asset of Etixx – Quick-Step on the flat stages so far, setting the pace at the front and protecting the team's leaders in the crosswinds. On Thursday, Iljo enjoyed more freedom and decided to go up front, in the breakaway which at one point saw its advantage grow to 18 minutes, a huge gap that began to drop only in the final 80 kilometers, when some of the GC teams came to the forefront and began to chew into the escape's lead, which dropped to less than eight minutes with 40 kilometers to go.
Under the impetus of Etixx – Quick-Step, who drove the peloton hard thanks to the likes of Marcel Kittel and Tony Martin, the pack split in the crosswinds and the elite group was trimmed to just 30 riders. Then, just as the gap was coming down even more, a crash occurred at the head of the bunch on a tricky corner, which slowed down the chasers, and in that moment it became obvious that the break will make it. As expected, the group couldn't stick together, only Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) and Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) staying together and fighting for the win at Chalet-Reynard, where De Gendt was the first to cross the line. Behind, from the yellow jersey group, Chris Froome (Team Sky) made his move and was joined by Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Richie Porte (BMC).
Inside the last kilometer, the trio was 25 seconds up on a group which included Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), but all three lost time after Porte crashed into a motorbike which was halted because of the huge crowds on Mont Ventoux. Soon, Porte and Froome were caught by the chasers and came to the finish line with a big deficit, but this was scratched off by the race jury, who decided to reverse the gaps and give the riders the time taken at the moment of the incident.
Dan Martin – Etixx – Quick-Step's best placed rider in the Tour de France general classification – was returning to Mont Ventoux after three years, hoping to continue his series of impressive results at this year's edition. Unfortunately, the hot temperatures and the huge tempo pushed at the head of the bunch once the race tackled the tough slopes of this iconic ascent took their toll on Dan, who lost contact midway through the climb and moved down in the overall standings.
Even though he is 9th now, Dan's spirit is high with several mountain stages and two individual time trials still to come, the first of which will take place on Friday: "I felt good all day and the guys did a great job. Everybody was fully committed. I was good, but not good enough, and I must say I am gutted for losing some time. I lost a wheel when Sky decided to up the tempo, but I continued to ride hard, even if this meant going into the red. The Tour de France is not over, I'm not too far behind and I vow to fight. I'm the kind of rider who likes more a mountainous day than a big explosion effort, and fortunately such stages are yet to come."
Last word goes to Iljo Keisse, who proved once again what a fantastic and selfless rider he is, by putting himself in the service of Dan Martin, after spending more than 120 kilometers at the front: "It was a pretty hard day. I saw about 20 riders going into the breakaway and then jumped. Six or seven of them were dropped in the echelons and the rest of us continued working together. When the team began pulling in the pack I stayed a little bit behind and on the climb I stopped and waited for Dan. When he joined me, I went full gas for around 1.5 kilometers, until I exploded. It was a hard day, but I am happy I could still do something for him."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele