Marcel Kittel extended his lead in the green jersey classification, at the end of a stage in which Quick-Step Floors was on the attack on all fronts.
Station Les Rousses returned to the Tour de France route seven years after Quick-Step Floors took the glory, and just like back then, also this time the stage that took the race to the deceitful Jura mountains was a crazy and chaotic one, which didn't give the pack any moment of respite, as dozens of riders fired on all cylinders as soon as the race rolled out of Dole and rode at an average speed constantly exceeding 47 km/h.
Grande Boucle debutant Gianluca Brambilla was one of the first riders to go clear and was quickly joined by three men, but despite pushing the pedal to the metal they couldn't put more than 20 seconds between them and the bunch. Other skirmishes soon followed, but it was only 60 kilometers into the stage, after the intermediate sprint, that a break finally got clear, and when it happened, 50 riders were part of that move, including Quick-Step Floors' Jack Bauer, Philippe Gilbert and Matteo Trentin.
As expected, the large group splintered over the rolling terrain and only 16 riders were left in the leadt. Dropped on the first classified climb of the day, Matteo made use of his great descending skills, which last year carried him to a maiden Giro d'Italia stage win, and returned to the front, but the second-category Côte de Viry took him out of contention and the Italian soon returned to the peloton.
Despite having a gap of only 1:30 over the yellow jersey group, the riders in the front went on to fight for victory, which was nabbed by Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie), after distancing Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo) on Côte de la Combe de Laisia-Les Molunes. Dan Martin showcased again his aggressive spirit and launched an attack on a short downhill section, but the bunch reacted and reeled in the Irishman, who then arrived with the pack and retained his fourth place in the overall standings.
"It was really hot and really crazy from the gun today. Everyone wanted to be in the break, so we raced at crazy speeds, which means tomorrow is really going to hurt. On the last climb it was impossible to attack, due to the hard pace set in the peloton, but in the finale I sensed there was an opportunity to attack on that downhill section, especially as there was some tailwind. I couldn't break clear, but at the end of the day I'm satisfied, because today it was a case of getting through", said Dan after Saturday's stern test.
There's an unanimous opinion in the Tour de France bunch that stage 9 of the race is the most difficult of this edition, despite the fact it doesn't schedule a mountain top finish. And that's because the 181.5km-long course between Nantua and Chambéry includes three excruciating HC climbs – Col de la Biche, Grand Colombier and Mont du Chat.
"Tomorrow is the queen-stage and we'll witness some more aggressive racing. Hopefully, we'll have good weather, otherwise it's going to be very hard with all those treacherous downhills", Dan continued. "I think we will see some big gaps at the end of the stage, especially with Mont du Chat coming not far from the finish."
Only multiple stage winner at the current Tour de France edition, Marcel Kittel got involved at the day's sole intermediate sprint, where he took third. That result helped the 29-year-old Quick-Step Floors rider increase his advantage over Arnaud Demare (FDJ) in the green jersey competition to 30 points.
Marcel arrived well inside the time limit at the finish line in Station des Rousses, together with teammates Jack Bauer and Fabio Sabatini, and retained the green jersey, which tomorrow he'll wear for the seventh time in his career, a feat that puts him into fourth overall among German riders at the Tour de France.
Photo credit: © Tim De Waele