Ed Pickering reviews stage nine of the Tour de France, where Tony Martin took a solo win and Tony Gallopin took the race lead

It was an excellent day for Tonys and Belgian teams in the Tour de France. Tony Martin, of Omega Pharma, rode to a superb lone victory in Mulhouse, with the unexpected and incongruous bonus of a day in the climber’s jersey tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Lotto rider Tony Gallopin, stuck in no-man’s land for most of the stage between Martin and the peloton along with a large, heterogenous and ultimately disappointed group of chancers, stealth GC riders and halfway decent sprinters, took over the yellow jersey.

It was also an excellent day for Vincenzo Nibali and Astana. The top 10 was turned upside down as a result of Gallopin’s escape – not only did the Frenchman move into the yellow jersey, but Tiago Machado of Netapp moved up to third overall, and Europcar’s Pierre Rolland to eighth. This was a controlled explosion by Astana, who have relinquished the responsibility of leading the race ahead of one of its toughest days.

Gallopin has two teams to thank for his yellow jersey – Europcar and Astana. Europcar committed five riders into the break which formed behind Martin and his temporary companion Alessandro De Marchi, of Cannondale. Even though they contrived not to catch Martin and De Marchi, they provided much of the break’s impetus. Astana were happy to allow another team to temporarily take over the yellow jersey, which they have already been defending for the best part of a week.

Gallopin’s own team. Lotto, might not thank him so much, especially his leader Jurgen Van den Broeck. The Belgian squad will now be committed to defending a race lead they have no chance of actually winning, in one of the hardest stages of the race tomorrow. They’ll be obliged to control the race, while Astana, Tinkoff and Sky sit on their wheels, then Van den Broeck runs the risk of being isolated when the real action happens. On the other hand, one day (or more) in yellow is probably worth more to the team than a third fourth place overall for Van den Broeck. But either way, there will be relieved faces in the Astana hotel tonight.

Tactically, it was a strange day. Martin and De Marchi made good their escape after 20 kilometres. The same distance later, a group of 28 riders coalesced between the lead pair and the peloton, spearheaded by five Europcar riders – Perrig Quemeneur, Alexandre Pichot, Pierre Rolland, Kevin Reza and Cyril Gautier. The other 23, who included BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, Movistar’s Juan-Jose Rojas, Simon Spilak and Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha and Belkin’s Lars Boom, seemed very happy to leave the work to the French team, who set to work to join Martin and De Marchi.

Martin had other ideas, however. He may be the finest time triallist in the world, but he’s got less appetite for a tactical and highly political transition stage free-for-all in a group of 30. If the Europcar group joined him, his chances of victory would suddenly have gone from a healthy one-in-two to a less favourable one-in-30. The gap between the lead duo and the peloton hovered at two minutes for a long time, while the Rolland group closed to within 25 seconds. But Martin, sitting on the front almost all the time, kept his pace up, and over the third climb of the day, the third-category Cote des Cinq Chateaux, the gap started going out again. At the same time, Astana put on the brakes, overtly gifting the yellow jersey to Gallopin, and marooning the other 27 riders in no-man’s land.

In France, the act of attacking out of the peloton to chase a group, but not catching them, is known as a chasse-patate – potato hunting. Europcar’s bold move, initially described by the French television commentators as a “coup de force,” was starting to look like the least manpower-efficient tuber-gathering expedition in the history of cycling. More out of embarrassment than anything else, the five (then four, three, and two) Europcar riders kept at it, correctly reasoning that with Astana putting the brakes on behind, at least Rolland could move into the top 10.

Tony Martin escapes on stage nine of the 2014 Tour de France

Tony Martin escapes on stage nine of the 2014 Tour de France

Martin told interviewers after the stage that he’d promised the King of the Mountains points to De Marchi, but that bargain went out of the window when Martin rode away from his companion on the first category Markstein climb, cementing his lead on the third category climb to the Grand Ballon and taking enough points to take over the climbers’ jersey. With a 20-kilometre descent followed by 20 kilometres of flat roads, the question was, how much time could the chase group take out of Martin by the finish?

The answer was, virtually nothing. At the bottom of the descent the gap was 3-15 and at the finish line it was 2-45, most of which was accounted for by Martin freewheeling most of the final 150 metres. The German world time trial champion had turned the final 50 kilometres of the stage into a time trial. Even the presence of Fabian Cancellara in the chase group couldn’t dent Martin’s lead.

Gallopin did most of the work in the final 20 kilometres, given a bit of help by Machado and Rolland, while his ex-Radioshack team-mate Cancellara chipped in a bit. The chances are he’ll get only one day in the jersey, although that day will be France’s national holiday, Bastille Day.

Or maybe he’ll last longer. The last time the Tour went to La Planche des Belles Filles in 2012, Gallopin ceded 1-37 to Vincenzo Nibali on the climb. His lead over the Italian is currently 1-34, but tomorrow’s stage is much harder than 2012’s, with six significant climbs in advance of the summit finish. Nibali might not be in such a generous mood tomorrow.