Whatever anxieties Dan Martin may have felt from his dismal 2018 spring campaign evaporated on the slopes of the Mûr de Bretagne on Thursday.
Martin, 31, rode with the punchy, aggressive style that earned him top results in cycling’s hilly Ardennes classics. He accelerated away from the peloton on the hill’s steepest pitch, and then held his gap until the line, crossing the finish just ahead of a charging Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale) to win the Tour de France‘s stage 6.
The winning move gave Martin his first Tour de France stage victory in five years, and removed much of the pressure that he brought into this year’s race.
“It makes this Tour de France a success already, and everything else is a bonus now,” Martin said after the win. “It’s a great feeling to get a win again.”
The victory also validated UAE Team Emirates’s decision to hire Martin during the 2017 offseason to lead its efforts at the Tour. The squad had not won a stage of the Tour de France since 2015.
Martin’s move from Belgium’s Quick-Step to UAE marked one of the biggest transfers of the 2017 off season. It came on the heels of his heroic ride at the 2017 Tour de France, where he overcame two fractured vertebrae to finish sixth-place overall. At Quick-Step, Martin shared Tour leadership with sprinting ace Marcel Kittel. The move to UAE made him the team’s undisputed leader for the Ardennes and the Tour.
“The biggest difference is I took a role as the real team leader,” Martin said. “At [Quick Step] I was always a GC rider but I never took on the whole team.”
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Martin’s stint with UAE kicked off with a whimper. After a string of mediocre result at early-season stage races in Portugal and France Martin crashed hard on the final stage of Spain’s Volta a Catalunya. He then suffered through a disastrous Ardennes campaign. Martin did not finish the Amstel Gold Race and was caught behind a crash at La Flèche Wallonne, where he rolled in 10 minutes behind winner Julian Alaphilippe.
At Liège-Bastogne-Liège Martin made the final group and appeared to be in a perfect position to score a result. An untimely puncture with 8km remaining, however, forced him to chase. He finished 18th.
“The lowest moment of the year for me, the saddest moment, was La Flèche Wallonne. I looked at myself afterward and said, ‘What am I going to do?'” Martin told reporters in June.
After the Ardennes, Martin took time to reflect. He decided that he raced his bicycle for pleasure, and decided to focus on having fun on the bicycle. The attitude, Martin said, helped set a tone with the team.
“I realized how I affect the other riders. If I act like the pressure is getting to me, or if I am nervous or stressed, that makes everyone [nervous],” Martin said. “It is me stepping back and realizing what I do. Like, I had this moment of reflection.”
The new attitude shone through in the early summer. Martin was 10th at the Tour of Romandie in late April. In June he won a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné and finished fourth overall.
Martin’s win atop Mûr de Bretagne boosted his GC standing to 21st place, 1:27 down. He is just 25 seconds behind defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky), and four seconds behind Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). Martin should rise in the overall standings once the race enters the Alps — Martin has worked to improve his efforts on the Tour’s long, grinding climbs.
Martin said his progress through the rest of this year’s Tour de France may depend on his ability to maintain a relaxed attitude.
“I race best when I am happy and relaxed,” Martin said. “That translates into a very relaxed team where everyone supports and believes in me. When I am happy, everyone is happy, especially when I win.”
Andrew Hood and Dane Cash contributed to this report from Mur de Bretagne, France.