Tony Martin felt nothing but joy as he finally got his hands on the yellow jersey that had eluded him by a matter of seconds on the previous three days at the Tour de France.
The 30-year-old three-time world time-trial champion made a daring solo attack from a reduced peloton with 3.3km left of Tuesday’s 223.5km cobbled fourth stage and held off the charging pack to win by three seconds.
That on its own would have been enough to snatch the yellow jersey from 2013 champion Chris Froome’s shoulders but he also took a 10sec time bonus on the line that gives him a 12sec buffer to Froome in the overall standings.
“Pure happiness! All the pressure and all the sadness from the last days has come off now,” said the German Etixx-Quick Step rider.
“It’s a really emotional day and stage for me, I’m super happy for that. Everything went well and I’m super happy for this team.
“They supported me so much, they always believed in me even after missing out these last days and fortunately I could pay it back.”
John Degenkolb, the winner of the Paris-Roubaix race whose cobbles were borrowed for this stage, took second with Peter Sagan third.
Martin, 30, had spent the first three days in second place having lost out to Australian Rohan Dennis by five seconds in the opening stage time-trial.
He ended the second stage 3sec behind Fabian Cancellara, who had taken a 4sec bonus on the line for finishing third.
Froome then finished second on the third stage to earn a 6sec bonus that left him just 1sec ahead of Martin.
– Brazen attack –
But his brazen attack after the last treacherous cobbles had been crossed paid off.
It almost didn’t, though, as Martin punctured just before the final cobbled sector and had to borrow team-mate Matteo Trentin’s bike.
“Today, all the bad luck turned into luck! Before the last cobbled sector I had a flat tyre and had to change bike,” said Martin.
“I didn’t believe in the stage victory any more, I just wanted to stay with the best but it came together at the front and nobody wanted to chase so I just gave it a try.
“I didn’t believe in this victory but somehow it happened and I still can’t believe it.”
After a hectic last 50km, including 11.5km of cobbles across six sectors, the ‘fantastic four’ favourites of Froome, reigning champion Vincenzo Nibali, two-time winner Alberto Contador and Colombian Nairo Quintana all finished in the leading group of around 25 riders.
Froome was gracious in losing the yellow jersey.
“Congratulations to Tony, it was a great performance. He was very close to the yellow jersey these last few days and definitely deserves it for all the work he’s done,” said the Sky team leader.
The big loser on the day, though, was French hope Thibaut Pinot, third overall last year.
He suffered a mechanical problem on the penultimate cobbled sector, had a tantrum and eventually lost around 3min 30sec, leaving him 6min 30sec back in total and with an uphill struggle to compete for a podium finish.
American Tejay Van Garderen is now third overall at 25sec while Contador is still eighth at 48sec now.
Nibali has a 1min 50sec gap to the lead with Quintana at 2min 08sec but the Movistar leader will have been relieved he didn’t lose any more time to Froome.
Nibali admitted he was hoping to gain back time to the man he succeeded last year but was not too disappointed.
“I would have hoped for a little more but it was a very difficult day,” said the 30-year-old Italian.
“I tried to stay at the front in the cobbled sectors and didn’t take any big risks.”
Before the race reaches the mountains there are still a couple of stages where time could be gained in uphill finishes.
“I’m also waiting for climbs because there are many stages with little climbs at the end. I’ll take it day by day.”
Standings from the 4th stage of the Tour de France, a 223.5km ride from Seraing to Cambrai on Tuesday (TOP 50) –
1. Tony Martin (GER/ETI) 5h28min 58sec (average: 40.8 km/h)
2. John Degenkolb (GER/GIA) at 0:03.
3. Peter Sagan (SVK/TIN) 0:03.
4. Greg Van Avermaet (BEL/BMC) 0:03.
5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR/MTN) 0:03.
6. Nacer Bouhanni (FRA/COF) 0:03.
7. Jacopo Guarnieri (ITA/KAT) 0:03.
8. Tony Gallopin (FRA/LOT) 0:03.
9. Zdenek Stybar (CZE/ETI) 0:03.
10. Bryan Coquard (FRA/EUC) 0:03.
11. Alejandro Valverde (ESP/MOV) 0:03.
12. Mark Cavendish (GBR/ETI) 0:03.
13. Rigoberto Uran (COL/ETI) 0:03.
14. Robert Gesink (NED/LNL) 0:03.
15. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA/AST) 0:03.
16. Bauke Mollema (NED/TRE) 0:03.
17. Chris Froome (GBR/SKY) 0:03.
18. Romain Bardet (FRA/ALM) 0:03.
19. Alberto Contador (ESP/TIN) 0:03.
20. Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP/KAT) 0:03.
21. Warren Barguil (FRA/GIA) 0:03.
22. Geraint Thomas (GBR/SKY) 0:03.
23. Nairo Quintana (COL/MOV) 0:03.
24. Tejay Van Garderen (USA/BMC) 0:03.
25. Andrew Talansky (USA/CAN) 0:03.
26. Jean Christophe Peraud (FRA/ALM) 0:03.
27. Christophe Laporte (FRA/COF) 0:03.
28. Mathias Frank (SUI/IAM) 0:03.
29. Roman Kreuziger (CZE/TIN) 0:03.
30. Jakob Diemer Fuglsang (DEN/AST) 0:03.
31. Manuel Quinziato (ITA/BMC) 0:03.
32. Jan Bakelants (BEL/ALM) 0:03.
33. Kristjan Koren (SLO/CAN) 0:03.
34. Florian Sénéchal (FRA/COF) 0:03.
35. Julien Vermote (BEL/ETI) 0:03.
36. Angelo Tulik (FRA/EUC) 0:18.
37. Koen de Kort (NED/GIA) 0:43.
38. Rui Costa (POR/LAM) 0:51.
39. Bram Tankink (NED/LNL) 0:51.
40. Marcel Sieberg (GER/LOT) 0:51.
41. Alberto Losada (ESP/KAT) 0:51.
42. Sylvain Chavanel (FRA/IAM) 0:51.
43. Nicolas Roche (IRL/SKY) 0:51.
44. Dominik Nerz (GER/BOA) 0:57.
45. Nélson Oliveira (POR/LAM) 1:55.
46. Jarlinson Pantano (COL/IAM) 1:55.
47. Michal Golas (POL/ETI) 1:55.
48. Daniele Bennati (ITA/TIN) 2:21.
49. Danilo Wyss (SUI/BMC) 2:21.
50. Kenneth Vanbilsen (BEL/COF) 2:21.
. Daryl Impey (RSA/ORI) Withdrawn
. Andreas Schillinger (GER/BOA) Withdrawn
. Fabian Cancellara (SUI/TRE) Withdrawn
– Agence France-Presse