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Martin takes aim at Tirreno

Tony Martin rode the final-stage time trial to victory in Algarve. Next up is Tirreno-Adriatico in a calendar aimed at stage-race victories

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TAVIRA, Portugal (VN) — With one stage race already in the bag, Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is now taking aim at Italy’s Tirreno-Adriatico.

The reigning world time trial champion was barely wiping off the sweat after pulling the double Sunday with the stage win and the overall at the Volta ao Algarve (Tour of the Algarve) when he began setting his sights on the next challenge.

Tirreno-Adriatico (March 6-12) is on Martin’s radar screen for the first time in an ambitious season for the 27-year-old German.

“I’ve raced Paris-Nice four times already, so it’s nice to change and try something different,” Martin told VeloNews at the finish line Sunday. “There are two nice time trials, including the team time trial, which is important for us. I hope to have a chance to win.”

“Der Panzer” has already tasted victory at Paris-Nice, winning the “Race to the Sun” in his near-perfect 2011 season. The French stage race, however, has opted for a short prologue and a climbing time trial up the Cat. 1 Col d’Eze, which tips the race away from Martin’s strengths.

This year’s Tirreno course is ideal for his qualities. With a team time trial to open the race and an individual time trial to close it, he knows he will be in with a chance to add the “Race of the Two Seas” to his palmares.

The chance to race in Italy and aim for the overall at Tirreno provides a new challenge for Martin, who has raced the last four straight editions of Paris-Nice.

Also, Omega Pharma-Quick Step will be riding to show off its world team time trial stripes in the opening 16.9km TTT and wants Martin there to help drive home what it hopes will be victory.

As he’s grown as a rider, Martin has learned if he can stay close in the hills, he can finish off the kill with a strong individual time trial, just like he did over the weekend in Portugal to win Algarve for the second time in three years.

At Tirreno, he will be facing a deeper, more quality field, including defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Cannondale) and a highly motivated Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), neither of whom are slouches against the clock.

Tirreno’s series of short, punchy finales could unravel Martin’s tried-and-true formula of winning weeklong stage races, however. He will have to keep it close going into the final stage, because the stage 8 ITT is a short, flat course at San Benedetto del Tronto of only 9.2km.

Changing focus

The switch to Tirreno fits into Martin’s plan of taking aim at the GC at smaller stage races.

“I want to do well in races like Tirreno and then the Tour de Romandie before the Tour,” Martin said. “I want to try to win some stage races as well, not just time trial stages.”

Martin’s script unfolded picture-perfect in the green hills of the Algarve over the weekend. On Saturday, he kept everyone on a short leash up the Cat. 2 Malhao summit to keep his GC chances alive in the four-day race.

A day later, Saturday’s stage winner, Sergio Henao (Sky), started with a 28-second head start on Martin, but the skinny Colombian knew he had no chance in Sunday’s 34km time trial over a lumpy course on damp roads following morning showers.

“Martin is the world champion. He’s the best in time trials right now. I gave it my all, but I knew it would be nearly impossible to win,” Henao told VeloNews at the finish line. “I am working to improve time trialing. Martin is very strong in this discipline.”

After debuting at the Mallorca Challenge, where Martin was just warming up his engine, he picked up where he left off last season, winning the Tour of Beijing for a second year running in October.

“I had no problems over the winter. No crashes, no illnesses,” Martin said. “I enter this season hoping to avoid the problems I had last year.”

The Tour

How far can Martin go? While he can aspire to win the GC in such races as Algarve, Tirreno, and Romandie, he all but accepts he will never have a chance to win the Tour de France.

The German is simply too big and bulky — at least now — to seriously hope to challenge the climbers across the Alps and Pyrénées.

For this year’s mountainous Tour course, Martin knows that he will be hunting time trial stages and helping to set up Omega Pharma teammate Mark Cavendish for the sprints.

But could Martin someday hope to aspire for the Tour? No one seriously considered Bradley Wiggins a Tour contender a few years ago.

Based on previous comments, Martin has gone back and forth on the issue. Sometimes he says he’s given up on dreaming about the Tour, but then on other occasions, he hints that with the right course, he could have a chance.

Omega Pharma sport director Brian Holm knows Martin well and says that in cycling one should never say never.

“Wiggins proved that a time trialist can win a Tour on the right course. Tony would need to lose more weight,” Holm said. “It might be possible to dream for the podium if the Tour makes another course like last year’s. Tony might be an old man before they do that again.”

For now, Martin is in his prime. His immediate goals are dominating the time trials, especially at the Tour de France, and winning a third world title.

The Tour can wait. Up next is Tirreno.