The Irishman climbed in the general classification, whilst Marcel Kittel kept the green jersey after Monday’s frantic finish.
Starting from Verviers, the native town of Ronde van Vlaanderen and Amstel Gold Race champion Philippe Gilbert, stage 3 of the Tour de France had the riders make a foray into Luxembourg before arriving in France for the first time at this edition, three days after the Grand Depart in Düsseldorf.
But before leaving Belgium and visiting the Grand Duchy, the peloton took some time to go for a lap on the mythical Spa-Francorchamps car racing circuit, one of the most spectacular in the world, to pay a tribute to the legendary Belgian pilot Jacky Ickx.
By that point, Julien Vermote was already at the front of the bunch, setting the pace behind the day’s six escapees and permanently controlling the gap, which didn’t go north of three minutes: Frederik Backaert (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Nathan Brown (Cannondale-Drapac), Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal), Romain Hardy (Fortuneo-Oscaro), Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) and Romain Sicard (Direct Energie).
Thanks to Julien’s work, the deficit was reduced with around 70 kilometers to go, but instead of becoming quieter, the stage all of the sudden turned into an even more eventful one, as three other men jumped clear from the bunch and joined the leaders. Same Vermote continued to put in some mammoth turns at the front, and his effort was repaid with ten kilometers remaining, when everything came back together.
A frantic battle for positioning followed ahead of the last climb of the day, the 1600m-long Côte des Religieuses (5.8% average gradient), where Czech Champion Zdenek Stybar took the reins of the pack. Richie Porte (BMC) was the first to show his intentions on the steepest part of the hill, splitting the bunch, but the Australian couldn’t push this tempo all the way to the line, as other riders came strong from behind and forced a second selection.
Dan Martin was among them, and the Irishman opened a powerful acceleration on the second part of the ascent, when the gradients started to kick in again; that surge helped Dan finish third on the day, behind Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), as the best of the general classification contenders. The Quick-Step Floors rider’s brilliant effort in Longwy – which returned in the Tour de France after a 35-year hiatus – saw him take a total of six seconds on all the other race favourites, a welcomed bonus that helped him move up to 15th place in the overall rankings.
“That’s what I tried today and I’m really happy with how it went. I found the first part of the climb not so hard, but things changed once Richie attacked and lined out the peloton”, a satisfied Dan Martin explained after the stage. “The sprint was very long and I knew it was very important to bide your time. So I sat on Matthews’ wheel and launched my sprint when I sensed everybody was in the red. I never thought I would sprint against those guys, so to get this result at the end of such a hard day makes me very happy and confident. A big shout-out to my teammates, who did everything to bring me in the best position for this finish.”
Marcel Kittel got in the mix at the day’s sole intermediate sprint, behind the escapees, and the points the 29-year-old nabbed there helped him retain the lead in the points standings, which he tops following Sunday’s emphatic win, the team’s 36th of the season.
The German will have a new opportunity to fight for a stage victory on Tuesday afternoon, when the peloton will travel from Mondorf-les-Bains (Luxembourg) to Vittel, in the Vosges department, which will host a finish for the fourth time in Tour de France history, after the 1968, 1990 and 2009 editions.