Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) soloed to victory and into the yellow jersey on stage four of the Tour de France after a perfectly-timed late attack on the intriguing cobbled stage.
Martin, using a team-mates bike, attacked with little more than three kilometres and with previous leader Chris Froome (Team Sky) having safely traversed the cobbles along with his fellow GC rivals, Der Panzerwagen was allowed to go clear.
By the time the sprinters responded, it was too late to bring him back as he showed his time-trialling prowess to hold off the peloton by three seconds and win the stage, and finally – after three days of near-misses – claim the race lead.
Froome, meanwhile, after he and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) rode superbly on the cobbles, finished in that chasing group with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also safely there.
Lieuwe Westra (Astana), Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Perrig Quemeneur (Europcar) and Frederic Brun (Bretagne-Seche Environnement) formed the day’s break from the flag, which were afforded a big gap early on.
Their presence up the road never looked likely to threaten the peloton, however, with the pace simply too high behind as attention turned to road position for the cobbles.
Sky, with Froome barking instructions into the team radio, were among the teams to ramp the pace up on the run-in to the first section, while Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) led the way across it.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep) changed bikes at the end of it, but the peloton otherwise passed through with no problems and the pace relented again.
The intermediate sprint offered a quick change in pace, with Cavendish the best-placed sprinter from the bunch on the uphill drag.
As the pace ramped up again, with the cobblestones approaching, Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Alex Dowsett (Movistar) suffered an ill-timed crash to rule them out of the reckoning for their teams.
The wind really whipped up as the cobbles resumed, blowing dust across the sections as Nibali and Froome in particular showed themselves towards the front.
Nibali continued to show the form of 12 months ago, gliding across the next section on the front, with Lars Boom for company, but Froome led the strung-out peloton across.
Quintana had places to make up as they came off the section, but did so with little trouble, while Cavendish came to the fore again for Etixx-QuickStep.
In that front group, Froome only just stayed upright as he jostled for position on the run-in to secteur three, after bumping shoulders with Jacopo Guarnieri, while Nibali was forced onto the grass when Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) swerved into his path on the cobbles.
Each section forced another selection of riders off the back, but still the main GC favourites were still together on the penultimate section as Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and the bandaged Daniel Oss (BMC Racing) hit the front.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) did lose contact though, succumbing to a puncture as he desperately tried to cling to the back of the group, angrily remonstrating with his team and team-mates.
Tony Martin had to borrow team-mate Matteo Trentin’s bike too, as they came off the section, leading to a big chase back on as he looked to maintain his hopes of claiming the yellow jersey for at least a day.
Martin’s team-mate’s rallied well, working their way through the team cars with Vanmarcke, who punctured, as a passenger, before the final section started, but Pinot saw his GC hopes slipping away as his team-mates desperately tried to cut his losses.
On that final section, Nibali hit the front again, and an elite eight-man group formed with Froome chaperoned perfectly by Geraint Thomas.
The yellow jersey made a brief dig on the front, but the chase behind ensured Contador’s group regained contact and a relatively large peloton – with Valverde, Contador, Froome, Nibali, Quintana and van Garderen all there – headed for the finish.
Stage hunters included Boasson Hagen, Valverde, Degenkolb, Sagan and Cavendish but it was Martin who went for the long one, attacking with 3.3km to go.
Thomas did not react, he and Froome seemingly happy to allow Martin the jersey – and by the time the sprinters responded it was too late.
Tour de France 2015: stage four – result
1) Tony Martin (GER) – Etixx-QuickStep – 5.28.58hrs
2) John Degenkolb (GER) – Giant-Alpecin +3”
3) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Tinkoff-Saxo – ST
4) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing
5) Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) – MTN-Qhubeka
6) Nacer Bouhanni (FRA) – Cofidis
7) Jacopo Guarnieri (ITA) – Katusha
8) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Soudal
9) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Etixx-QuickStep
10) Bryan Coquard (FRA) – Europcar
1) Tony Martin (GER) – Etixx-QuickStep – 12.40.26hrs
2) Chris Froome (GBR) – Team Sky +12”
3) Tejay van Garderen (USA) – BMC Racing +25”
4) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Soudal +38”
5) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Tinkoff-Saxo +39”
6) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing +40”
7) Rigoberto Uran (COL) – Etixx-QuickStep +46”
8) Alberto Contador (ESP) – Tinkoff-Saxo +48”
9) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +1.15
10) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Etixx-QuickStep +1.16