The first Irish stage winner in the Tour de France in more than two decades, Dan Martin admits that he may have to forgo a ride in the 2014 Tour to get a good result at the Giro d’Italia, which begins in Ireland next May.
“I think it depends on what type of rider you are and how you come out of the Giro,” he says as he takes some time out on a visit to Dublin. “If the Giro is as difficult as it was this year, then it’s going to be hard. But it depends on how you approach both races.
“I’m at such a strong level now, that I dare to say (he knocks on wood) it’s not hard now to finish a grand tour. You’re tired, but if you’re not riding for GC you don’t finish completely wrecked. Then, the Giro is probably good preparation for the Tour. But if you’re killing yourself at the Giro, the Tour would be hard, just from a psychological point of view.”
It’s been a stellar season for Martin, the 27-year-old Garmin-Sharp climber, who followed up a stage win and overall victory at the Tour of Catalunya with his first classic victory, at the prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April, and a first Tour stage win in July.
Having ended the season with second overall at the Tour of Beijing, Martin’s consistency throughout sees him ranked sixth in the world. But he says he will begin next season slightly later than usual, hoping to bring top form to the Belfast start of the Giro.
“At the moment, I’m off the bike for quite a while,” he says. “If I feel like riding when I go home to Girona, I’ll go out and turn the pedals, but because of the Giro, I’m going to start racing later next year, probably at Tirrenno-Adriatico in March.”
He insists, however, that the hilly Ardennes classics in Belgium and a defense of his Liège crown are still major goals.
“The classics are always a big objective. I love those races,” he says. “Last year I only did one race, the Tour of Med, before Tirreno-Adriatico so the program is not too much different. But I hit Tirreno in quite good form this year. Next year, maybe Catalunya will suffer but hopefully I’ll still be pinging for the Ardennes.
“I think if you focus too much on one race you miss opportunities in others. For example, I was really focused on the Ardennes this year and then Catalunya came along beforehand and I thought ‘I’ll try and win Catalunya too.’ Guys get so eaten up on focusing on the Tour de France, say, and they miss opportunities elsewhere.”
The Giro will be a big opportunity, he adds.
“The team’s putting their full backing behind me. It’s the first time I’ll be going into a grand tour with full team leadership and a strong team to support me and that’s really exciting,” he says.
“To have a strong team time trial squad for the opening day in Belfast would be incredible, but you have to look at the bigger picture too. We need some climbers for the later stages to help me too. To go into a grand tour with a strong team behind me will be a new experience. A lot of things are going to have to go my way to get a good result at the Giro but I go into every race to try and get a result.”
In six years in the pro peloton, Martin’s consistency has taken him from being the rookie on the newly announced Team Slipstream, as it was known then, to being the leader of the Garmin-Sharp WorldTour squad for most races.
“It’s been a very gradual process,” he says of his development as a rider. “The team have been very patient with me. Obviously, I was winning races in my first year (he won Route du Sud in 2008) and in 2009 I was second overall in Catalunya, so it was obvious I had potential, but they never rushed me into the grand tours. That’s enabled me to progress and get to a psychological maturity that allowed me to cope with the pressure of having one of the best teams in the world ride for me week in, week out.
“That’s why I’ve been so tired at the end of this season. I’ve done 80 days racing and been team leader for at least 60 of those. I think I’ve definitely grown and am maturing. At the Tour, I was able to be 100 percent focused every single day of the race. Going into the last four days, I was still very fresh mentally and physically. That surprised me.”
Were it not for illness in the second week of the Tour and a crash that forced him out of the Vuelta a España with a concussion after just six days, Martin would almost definitely have finished higher in the UCI rankings and maybe even ended the year in the top spot, which eventually went to Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez.
“After Liège, I said to Jonathan (Vaughters), ‘let’s try and go for number one’. I was third in the world after Liège and with the stage races coming up, I knew I had a good chance.
“If I hadn’t got sick in the Tour, I’m very confident I would have been seventh or eighth on GC, which is about 70 or 80 points extra, and I’d be heading towards third or fourth (in the rankings). And then, if I’d been third in Lombardy and third in Flèche Wallonne, which I probably should have been. … I was very close to third in both. Physically, I should have been third but I made mistakes in both races and finished fourth. That’s another 20 points and then you’re getting towards 530, 540, and I’m only 50 points off Joaquim.
“I say ‘only’ 50 points. It’s a huge amount, but I crashed out of the Vuelta after six days, so there was a huge possibility that I could have been world number one this year, considering the start I had.
Modern cycling is a game of inches, where the slightest lapse can be the difference between victory and defeat, Martin says.
“Cycling has become incredibly professional now. Every team has upped their game. You have to be concentrated every single day and I think because cycling has become cleaner, the time gaps in the races are tiny now,” he says.
“You could easily lose 10 seconds by losing concentration on a flat day, missing a split in the bunch and you lose the whole race from that silly mistake. The top 10s in WorldTour races are covered by less than a minute now, so for me to achieve that level of consistency is amazing. It’s a sign of cleaner cycling and I hope it’s become more exciting for people at home watching it.”
While Martin has become, by his own admission, something of a poster boy for clean cycling, his team has taken a bit of a kicking recently with Tom Danielson, David Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, and, more recently, Ryder Hesjedal, all admitting to doping, albeit while riding for other teams and in the era where EPO seems to have been as common in the peloton as coffee at the breakfast table.
“It does affect me a little bit but I’m not naive,” says Martin of the revelations. “I understood what happened in the past. Even as a kid I kind of knew, understood what was going on. It was never going to surprise me that those guys were going to admit it, that something was going to come out. It’s not that I knew, but I had a feeling. Obviously I didn’t know.
“Ryder is a friend of mine and you always want to think the best. But it was almost a fact of life back then, and I know he has turned over a new leaf since he came to the team. That’s why everyone jumped at the chance to come to this team, because they had the opportunity to race clean. Jonathan gave those guys the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, almost begin their careers again, and prove to themselves they could be at the top level of the sport, clean.”
That makes Martin I feel even more fortunate to arrive in cycling when he did.
“That’s one of the reasons I signed for Slipstream Sports, which is now Garmin-Sharp,” he says. “It fitted my philosophy on cycling; that you can do it clean and you can perform to your best clean. It doesn’t matter if you’re not winning. The most important thing is that you’re trying to ride at your physical best in a correct manner.
“I’m quite humbled at the fact that everyone completely believes in me. It would be very easy to say that ‘he’s winning these races now — he might have changed his philosophy.’ That’s why I was so surprised with my victory in Liège. It was such a huge win and it’s something I know that three or four years ago would have been impossible.
“But for me to be able to win one of the biggest races of the year shows that cycling has definitely changed. The new generation of cyclists is here now and you can see it has changed. I’ve almost become the poster boy of clean cycling. It’s something that I’m very proud of and humbled by.”
Like many, Martin would like to see some sort of truth-and-reconciliation process whereby a line could be drawn under past discretions and the sport could start from scratch.
“I think it is damaging to cycling that every couple of weeks another guy puts his hand up and says he doped. But it’s hard to know if it would be more damaging to cycling if all of these guys came out at once. It probably would be better if it happened like that. If it happens now, then hopefully in 2014 we could turn over a new leaf and start again,” he says.
“I don’t know what the answer is. I think that’s why it’s so difficult for everyone to call it. It’s a difficult position to be in. You’re always going to have calls from people for justice. I think that’s going to be the biggest sticking point. If they do this truth-and-reconciliation thing you’ve still got guys who’ve had to go through a ban and suddenly these other guys get off free and they’re not going to be happy. It’s a balancing act.”
What would he do if he were the boss?
“I honestly don’t know,” Martin replies. “That’s why I’m not the boss. That’s why I’m never going to be a politician. It’s a really tough call and I can understand why they haven’t made the decision yet.”