First Vuelta, first Grand Tour, and already in the history books. At just 20 years of age, Lenny Martinez already set a record in his sport on Thursday, on stage 6 of the 2023 Vuelta, by becoming the youngest leader in the race’s history. After joining a large breakaway, the young man took full advantage of the support of Rudy Molard and Michael Storer up front, then finished it off wonderfully by claiming second place at the top of the Pico del Buitre while conquering the red jersey. Next to the Javalambre Observatory, a new star is born on Thursday. It is also the second leader’s jersey on a Grand Tour this season after Bruno Armirail’s pink on the last Giro.
“I followed my instinct”, Lenny Martinez
With five top-10 finishes in as many stages, the start of Vuelta de la Groupama-FDJ could hardly have been better. They just didn’t know what was waiting for them on stage 6. This Thursday, the peloton headed towards the second summit finish of the race, three days after a first fight in Andorra, where Lenny Martinez was able to compete with the greatest. Wearing the white jersey since then – instead of Remco Evenepoel -, the young man was obviously expected in the last eleven kilometres averaging 8%. However, the adventures began much earlier for the French leader. At first, they were not the most pleasing ones, since after only ten kilometres, Lenny Martinez suffered a crash while the fight for the breakaway was really on. Brought back by Romain Grégoire and Sam Watson, he then watched the peloton split up on numerous occasions due to a fierce fight for the break. “It was a crazy stage”, testified Benoît Vaugrenard. “We knew there would be a big fight because everyone thought that Soudal-Quick Step was going to give up the red jersey, but we didn’t expect it to last so long”. After about forty kilometres, several groups managed to open a gap, and Michael Storer, Rudy Molard but also Lenny Martinez joined the party. “It went in a long uphill part, where several small groups got clear”, explained Rudy. “First, we had Michael in front, then I also went, and Lenny followed at the top. “The gap was made, the group went, and it rode pretty fast from then on”.
“We wanted to have Michael in front to fight for the stage, but when the group went clear, we heard Lenny’s name,” added Benoît. “From there, it was on, and it was pretty well done by him.” “I didn’t want to join the breakaway at the start, but as the race went on, I saw that it was difficult to enter it”, said Lenny. “I told myself: it will be a hard fight, and when it will finally go, it will be difficult for the peloton to control. I saw a big group ahead, and I jumped across. I followed my instinct and I think I was right.” At the head of the race, the various groups did not come together before reaching the kilometre 70. The three men from Groupama-FDJ then found themselves with nearly forty rivals, including Sepp Kuss, Marc Soler, Mikel Landa, Romain Bardet, Santiago Buitrago, Hugh Carthy and even Einer Rubio. “We had a gap of six minutes, and we knew we could have a good opportunity, but the race had to settle down because there was a lot of attacking in the group”, explained Benoît. “We were among the teams with most riders together with Jumbo-Visma, and we had our leader, so we had to start pulling to get organized. It happened quite late, but we managed to do it and Rudy did a huge job”. “It hurt because it was a front wind all along”, added Rudy. “It wasn’t easy, but it was good to have three guys up there including Lenny. I think we couldn’t do better.” By entering the front group, Lenny Martinez therefore became the virtual leader of the race, given his seventeen-second delay overall.
“I still don’t realize what is happening to me”, Lenny Martinez
After letting the gap increase to seven minutes, the main bunch really took on the chase in the last fifty kilometres. The gap of the leading group was reduced to three minutes in the long slight uphill climb to Torrijas, about twenty kilometres from the finish. Yet, the last efforts of Rudy Molard and other teammates allowed the fugitives to tackle the final climb of Pico del Buitre almost four minutes ahead of the rest. Right from the start, Michael Storer took control. “He did an excellent job,” said Benoît. The Australian indeed paced the group for more than half of the climb, reduced the breakaway to about fifteen men, and then the attacks started four kilometres from the top. Einer Rubio launched the first offensive, Lenny Martinez came across with Romain Bardet after a few moments, then Sepp Kuss also joined the front. The American, thirty-eight seconds down on GC, then went solo, while the white jersey’s wearer placed himself in pursuit together with his fellow countryman. “We knew that Sepp Kuss was the most dangerous man,” said Benoît. “Once he went, we said to Lenny: ‘now you just do a time trial to the line, don’t think too much and we’ll do the maths at the finish”. With two kilometres to go, the young man was twenty seconds behind, and thirty seconds at the flamme rouge. However, he didn’t lose his fighting spirit and rode a spectacular last kilometre.
After a tremendous effort, he crossed the line in second place, and only twenty-six seconds behind from the winner, thus conquering the Vuelta’s red jersey. “We thought that the jersey was going to slip through our fingers because the gap increased up to thirty-five seconds, not counting the bonus seconds”, said Benoît. “We told ourselves that we would still be in a good position overall, and then we were surprised when we saw that Lenny was so close on the line”. The French climber was just as much, and actually needed several confirmations before celebrating. “That’s amazing” were his first words. “The Vuelta is already successful”, he added right after. The young man then headed to the tent made for the various rankings’ leaders, and the accomplishment became even more real. At 20, for his first Grand Tour, in his first pro year, Lenny Martinez did become the youngest leader of the race, and the second youngest all Grand Tours combined. “It’s incredible, it’s a dream for any rider”, he repeated after putting on the famous red jersey. “Michael and Rudy sacrificed their chance of winning for me today. I hope I paid them back. I have this jersey thanks to the whole team. I still don’t realize what is happening to me. It’s something so big. It was my dream when I came to the Vuelta. You think about it, but you also think that it is very hard to get. Yet, today it is done”.
“A pretty extraordinary first week”, Benoît Vaugrenard
Himself wearer of the red jersey on two editions of the Vuelta (2018 and 2022), with Groupama-FDJ, Rudy Molard enjoyed this amazing day for the race’s youngest team. “It’s incredible, of course we didn’t expect that this morning,” he said. “The team has been incredible since the start, we were again three up front today, everyone did their job and Lenny took the jersey. We couldn’t have hoped for better. We need to enjoy it”. “We’ve had a pretty extraordinary first week,” added Benoît. “Lenny was already over the moon with his white jersey. With the red, it will be even bigger. We hope he stays on the moon for as long as possible. We’ll keep on going without pressure, and come what may! It’s the first Grand Tour for a lot of our riders, so it’s amazing to have a leader’s jersey. They will remember it for a while. The momentum is on, and we want to keep it”. After stage 6, Lenny Martinez therefore leads the general classification (and the best young rider’s one), eight seconds ahead of Sepp Kuss and fifty-one ahead of Marc Soler. He should be able to enjoy his new outfit tomorrow towards Oliva, where the sprinters are expected. As for the rest… “We’ll need to defend the jersey, and it is almost scary to have it because it is something so big”, he concluded. “I will do my best for the GC, it was anyway the goal before the Vuelta. It doesn’t change my plans.” But it certainly changes a lot of other things.