“Even the best bike racers in the world, they have an 85% failure rate”.
Those were the words of Mike Woods in the GCN+ documentary ‘Monument: The Hunt for Glory’, after he finished fourth at La Flèche Wallonne. In a peloton of up to 200 riders, a pro cyclist must have thick skin, and become accustomed to ‘failing’ regularly.
And what about the breakaway? Isn’t it a hopeless exercise? Outnumbered massively by the powerful peloton behind, surely breakaway riders are supposed to be caught. Although parts of that theory may hold some truth, the breakaway always provides those brave enough to join it with a chance. Tony Martin taught us that lesson at the 2013 Vuelta a España.
After the flag was dropped in Guijuelo for stage 6 of the 2013 Vuelta, Martin attacked immediately. The route was 175km in length and featured just 1,500 metres of climbing throughout. On paper, it looked certain to finish in a mass sprint.
Small breakaways are standard procedure on a Grand Tour sprint stage such as this. However, you’re more likely to find riders representing smaller, ProTeams looking for TV exposure than a rider of Tony Martin’s calibre. At this point in his career, Martin rode for a leading team in Omega Pharma-Quick Step and was the back-to-back time trial World Champion.
Following Martin's attack, something strange happened, or didn’t happen. No one followed him. Would he sit up and hope for company, or press on with a seemingly impossible solo expedition ahead of him? After the stage, Martin reflected on this moment, "I wanted to break away and I was hoping to go with a few other guys but nobody could follow so I just kept going."
A lonely day for Tony Martin. (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
Martin pushed on and quickly established a seven-minute lead. Unlike for the other 194 riders participating in the Vuelta at that point, the journey south was a lonely one. After crossing the River Tagus, Martin had around 35km left and his lead had been trimmed to just under three minutes. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
As the kilometres remaining ticked to single digits, success for Martin looked increasingly unlikely. His lead was just 15 seconds with 10km left, and the sprinters were all readying themselves. However, Martin was yet to play his card. “When there were ten kilometres left to go, I thought, ‘right, time to give it a bit more power’,” said Martin after the race.
Martin had averaged just under 43kmh for three and a half hours, completely solo.
A technical finish in Cáceres helped Martin sweep through the corners whilst the peloton scrapped for position behind. With 1km left Martin’s lead remained slim, but it was a lead nonetheless. The fact he was yet to be caught was an achievement in itself. Carlton Kirby, commentating for Eurosport proclaimed, “If this man can do it today, I’ll eat my helmet! This is absolutely remarkable.”
Tony Martin fights to hold off the chasing pack. (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)
Martin carried as much speed as he dared through the final left-hand corner, and soon he was flying past the 500 metre marker with the peloton primed like a swarm of honey bees, now just four seconds in his arrears. Martin came out of the saddle to produce one final burst. He was 80m from the line. Across the world spectators stood from their chairs — this could be one of history's greatest solo breakaway wins.
He was caught with no more than 50 metres to the line.
Seconds later, Michael Mørkøv held him arms aloft to celebrate his maiden Grand Tour victory.
Of the 175,000 metres travelled that day, just 50 separated Tony Martin from one of the most unlikely victories in Grand Tour racing. For the stat geeks among us, after leading for the entire stage, Martin was reeled in with less than 0.03% of the stage remaining.
Martin reflected on his memorable day, “I was tired with 5km to go, the parcour was hard in the final and worked against me with some small uphills, and also the peloton was going full gas. I stayed focused on the finish line. It was a strange feeling. I saw the stripe of the finish line and could hear the peloton behind at the same time. But I was really going all out with my legs. I couldn't go any faster than I did in the last 200 metres.”
He then added, "If I want to think positively it was also great training for the World Championships." He would go on to win those World Championships in Firenze to claim his third rainbow jersey in succession.
Tony Martin won the individual time trial at the World Championships four times throughout his career. (Image credit: Alex Whitehead/SWPix)
Mørkøv went down in the history books as the stage winner, but Martin was upbeat after the heartbreak. "When you do something like that it's always bittersweet. From one end you think you could have won with a bit more luck. On the other hand I had the feeling that I did something great and difficult. I felt like a winner." And he was the winner, a year later. He more than made up for the stage that slipped through his fingertips when he won stage 10 of the 2014 Vuelta a España in Borja.
Martin retired from pro cycling in 2021, citing concerns over rider’s safety. In his prime, he was one of the world's finest time trialists, in terms of both power and aerodynamics. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Martin was so elusive that day in Spain. However, what sets Martin apart from most was his willingness to try. Even in the most unlikely scenario, he didn't shy away from rolling the dice. In terms of breakaway prowess, that may just have been his greatest asset.
Cover image: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images