Dan Martin pedals into the unknown at this year’s Tour de France. The Irishman is hoping for a career-best finish at pro cycling’s biggest race, and thus he has reformatted his training regimen to focus on the leg-cracking long climbs at this year’s Tour.
Whether the new approach leads Martin to reach the podium is the question hovering over the UAE-Team Emirates captain. Martin has always raced with explosive aggression, and he won the most aggressive rider award in last year’s Tour and also won stage eight en route to eighth place overall. In 2017 he took sixth in Paris despite a fracture in his spine.
On both occasions he was one of the riders who shunned conservative racing and instead fired off regular attacks; indeed, that has been Martin’s modus operandi since the start of his career.
He has the same nose for a perfectly-timed surge as his uncle Stephen Roche, who won the 1987 world championships with such a move. Indeed, go back and look at replays of that finale plus that of Martin’s victory in the 2014 Il Lombardia; the same precise timing is uncanny to see. In the case of the two Irishmen, it seems that their shared genes account for more than just physical performance.
When Martin is firing on all cylinders, his racing instinct proves lethal to his rivals. His professional victories include stage races like the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Pologne, and also stage wins in the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, plus Classic triumphs in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia.
“I think the story of the season so far has been more or less that things haven’t quite clicked and gone my way to get a big result,” Martin tells VeloNews. “At the Dauphiné I had really good legs, but didn’t really have the course to show it on. It was an incredibly hard race, but there weren’t really any decisive climbs. It was a strange one this year.
“That could be a good thing going into the Tour, because obviously I am a bit of an unknown. At the same time, it means that not only is my form unknown to other people, it is unknown to myself. But I am feeling good. In the last few years I have been good at the Tour. I have managed to get my form in the right place when it needed to be.”
A new approach
Martin reunited with former Garmin trainer Iñigo San Millan prior to the start of 2019 and together they decided to stake all on a career-best ride in the Tour de France. He deliberately avoided the explosive training and gym sessions which has given him his searing turns of pace in the past; instead, the focus has been on modifying his engine to be better suited to the long climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees.
They also decided not to prioritize any events before the Tour. If results came, fair enough; those would be seen as a bonus. But there was a clear concentration on being at a peak in July, not before.
Notwithstanding that, Martin has taken encouragement from what he says is the greatest consistency he has shown in recent seasons. He was fourth in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, seventh in the UAE Tour and was riding strongly in the Volta a Catalunya until he hit the deck on the concluding stage.
“I would have been at the worst fifth in Catalunya and potentially better if I had improved in the last day, but obviously I crashed out,” Martin says. “I was then second in Basque, which was a great result. It was the first time I have done really well in that race.
“Coming so close to the victory in that race was bitter-sweet, but was a great sign that the condition was there. I was unfortunate to get sick before the Classics because I think I had a very, very good result, especially in Flèche this year. But, yeah, stuff like that happens…”
Martin believes his eighth in the Dauphiné is misleading; had the course been harder, he is convinced he would have been much closer to race winner Fuglsang. But whatever about the might-have-beens, he believes he is in a good place.
He’s happy with how his racing buildup has been, knows he did some good mountain training since the Dauphiné and feels fully rested up before the Tour begins. He’s also in a good place mentally.
“It doesn’t feel like the Tour de France is about to start. I am feeling incredibly relaxed, and that is the most important thing.”
Becoming a father to twins last autumn has helped a lot with mental balance. “It is incredibly enhancing and empowering to watch these two little girls grow up,” Martin says. “I think becoming a parent definitely gives you a lot more perspective. I have always been quite good at having that sense of perspective [about the sport], but that feeling has just been enhanced.
“It’s clear just how fortunate we are to do this. It is the Tour de France, it is the greatest bike race on earth. There are thousands of cyclists, never mind all the people on the side of the road, who would gladly take our place. So I think you have to enjoy every moment and enjoy the race for what it is. And that is quite often lost in the stress and pressure that is this cauldron, this circus that we envelop ourselves in in the next three weeks.”
The hardest Tour route
Asked about his objective in the Tour, Martin points out that he has never had a clear run to Paris. He notes that in recent years he has been hampered by either a big crash or illness during the race. Staying healthy and keeping safe is his biggest priority: if that happens, he describes finishing on the podium as “a definite possibility.”
His initial target is to stay out of trouble during an often-times hectic opening half. “And then the race will really be decided in the last 10 days,” he says. “The last week looks brutal this year. I think I can honestly say that it is the hardest Tour de France that I have taken part in.
“I would say that the route is intimidating. There are a lot of tough climbs. A lot of very high altitude as well. It is a bit of an unknown, but I think on paper it should suit me. It is about staying consistent. In the last few years I have been incredibly consistent. My bad days have been down to crashes and bad luck, rather than just having a bad day. So hopefully we can find that consistency and keep that consistency all the way to Paris.”
With Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin out of the race, he believes the style of racing could be very different.
“Obviously the lineup is less strong, because of Chris and Tom,” Martin says. “And also with Primoz [Roglic, fourth in 2018] not being here, it has taken three of the stronger time trialists out of the equation. That could make for a very close and exciting battle in the mountains.
“I think the Tour route was designed very well this year, the fact that they have the time trial before the mountains. It would have meant that the stronger time trialists are on the defensive and the climbers are trying to get time back.
“Now there isn’t really that time trialist who is head and shoulders above all the climbers this year, so it could be really interesting.”
If things are indeed tight at the top, that will please race organizers and fans. Team Sky’s dominance in recent Tours has robbed a bit of the drama the Tour thrives on. With Froome being absent, many will hope that the final outcome is in question right up until the end of the race.
It’s 30 years on from the 1989 Tour de France, a race deemed by many to be the best-ever Tour. Many will hope for something along those lines, a suspenseful humdinger of a race settled on the final mountain stage.
If things go to plan for Martin, he will be right up there, firing off attacks and riding to his best-ever Tour result.