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Q&A: Dan Martin on new team, rediscovering his Ardennes touch

With a new team, Martin aims to return to the aggressive racing style that he embraced at the outset of his career.

Daniel Martin returns to the Ardennes this week, the setting of some of his biggest successes and bitter disappointments.

His breakout victory in the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège confirmed his status as a man made for the pressure and prestige of the one-day monuments, backing that win up at Giro di Lombardia in 2014, which he also won.

The steep hills of eastern Belgium have also served up a few disappointments, too, with second at the 2014 Flèche Wallonne, and fourth in the Tour de France stage last summer finishing up the Mur de Huy. And then there was the tire slip on the final corner of the 2014 Liège, when he crashed on the final left-hander, right on the wheel of Joaquim Rodríguez.

Despite those highs and lows, and perhaps because of them, Martin returns to the Ardennes this week with a new team, and new ambitions. Up first is Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne, a race he’s never won.

“The atmosphere on the Mur de Huy is one of the best of the year. It’s such a beautiful finish,” Martin told VeloNews. “To win? I need to be a little bit faster.”

The 29-year-old Irishman will lead Etixx – Quick-Step, a Belgian team steeped in classics history, but almost all of its successes have come on the pavé. The team signed Martin after eight seasons with the Slipstream organization in part to revive its chances in the hillier Belgian classics. He will co-captain the team with Julian Alaphilippe, the young breakout rider who was second last year at both Flèche and Liège. Martin hopes the move pays dividends for both Etixx and for himself.

“It’s been awhile since they’ve done well in the Ardennes, and hopefully we can bring some success back to the team in that respect,” Martin said. “Flèche is very tactical, and maybe I was a little too far back when I was second. Now I will have a really strong team to help me.”

Martin notched two early season wins, but was shook up in a crash that took him out of the Vuelta al País Vasco earlier this month. He lines up Wednesday as one of the favorites for victory.

VeloNews sat down with Martin earlier this season to talk the Ardennes; here are excerpts from that interview:

VN: Why the change after so long at Cannondale?
Dan Martin: I needed a change. Eight years is a long time. It was an accumulation of the past two years not going as planned, for whatever reason. I had a high on 2013, but since then, it just didn’t happen as I expected. Perhaps I had become a bit stale, and I think I needed to change the environment, to see how far I can go in this sport.

VN: How did it come together with Etixx – Quick-Step?
DM: Patrick [Lefevere] was always interested in me, and he tried to sign me before. There were a number of teams who were interested, and it all went through my agent, but as soon as I met with Patrick, I had a good feeling straight away. I felt very relaxed in his presence, and I felt like I could talk to him, and I could work with him.

VN: Has it been difficult to fit in?
DM: Not at all. There is a lot of professional respect between everyone. It’s funny, because I am the only English-speaking rider, and it’s an English-speaking team.

VN: Are the Ardennes classics the first big goal?
DM: It is a goal. There are a lot of races before that. If I go into the Ardennes with two or three wins already, they don’t seem as important. I want to get into that habit of winning early, because that’s a very good habit to get into. I want to get back into how I was racing at the beginning of my career, just race hard, and race aggressively. This team prefers to try to win the race or lose, than just to hang on for second or third. That really fits into my style. I needed to get back to that.

VN: Will you share leadership with Alaphilippe?
DM: It’s going to be good fun to race with him. He’s faster than me in the sprints, and I am a better climber. And we have other options. In the Ardennes, we are very deep. Julian is still very young, and he knows he has a lot to learn. If I wasn’t on the team, all eyes would be on him for the Ardennes. We can share the load a little bit, and we’ll see what happens.

VN: Do you love the Ardennes?
DM: I am a big fan of cycling. I love all the big races, and I really love one-day racing especially. You start the day, you empty the tank, and you need everything to go your way. It’s the poetic part of racing, it’s the magic of racing. The classics inspire the most dramatic stories that make cycling such a beautiful sport. I think it’s incredible that the courses are more or less the same courses, so you’re testing yourself against history. The fans embrace that as well.

VN: Do you do any special training for Ardennes?
DM: Nothing beyond the recon and the race. I’ve done it eight times, so I’ve done the major climbs 16 times. I know the course very well. I know where I am going on those roads. Maybe it’s not as important as with the cobblestone races to know every inch of the roads. I know the key climbs.

VN: You’ve had some bad luck with crashes, does that get into your head?
DM: I only crashed four times last year. It was wrong time and wrong place. Maybe this is something how this team can help me, because they can keep me in the right place. I’ve noticed the respect you get in the peloton with an Etixx jersey. I’m not going to start the race thinking that I am going to fall off today. If you start living like that, you might just stay in bed all day. I did Liège six times without crashes before what happened in 2014.