One of cycling’s oldest adages is that you have to finish to win. And a wild and dynamic Critérium du Dauphiné also proved that hanging in there without giving up can just as often deliver the goods.
EF Pro Cycling’s Daniel Martínez proved both of those in spades Sunday with the most important victory of his career. In a week that saw some of the top Tour de France favorites flame out, crash out and fade away, the 24-year-old Colombian was ever steady against the drama of the week.
His consistency capped by a superb performance Sunday delivered EF Pro Cycling an invaluable boost less than two weeks before the start of the 2020 Tour de France.
“It’s one of the most amazing days of my life,” Martínez said Sunday. “This week everyone has worked really hard. We’ve had hard times like with Sergio’s [Higuita] crash, but the whole team has really helped me.”
Martínez started the five-stage Dauphiné well off the radar. The story of the week was the hyped clash between Team Ineos and Jumbo-Visma. Even within EF Pro Cycling, Rigoberto Urán and Higuita were getting star billing.
The 24-year-old Martínez kept hanging in there as bigger names such as Egan Bernal and Primož Roglič exited the race. A solid ride in stage 2 pushed him into the top-10 on GC. He climbed to fifth overall Saturday, but things tilted in his favor for Sunday’s thrilling finale in unexpected ways. With Bernal already out of the race by Saturday, Roglič did not start Sunday, and before the day was finished, Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic) and a host of top others either abandoned or did not finish within the time limit.
The door was wide open for someone to go storming through it, and it was Martínez who boldly stepped into the void.
“Dani won that race with tactical nous and style — similar to the way this team won the Dauphiné in 2014 with Andrew Talansky,” said team boss Jonathan Vaughters. “Both those victories were unexpected, dazzling rides that showed not only strength but smarts. We’re not the powerhouse team, but we find talent and we race with conviction. It’s who we are, and it was really clear on the roads today.”
With Roglič a non-starter, the final stage was guaranteed to be a wild ride. Martínez started a handful of seconds behind and ahead of some of the best climbers in the world. Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) went on a solo flier to win the stage, and Martínez rode a smart race to distance his most direct rivals, and keep others on a tight leash.
Martínez came across the line in Megève at 27 seconds behind stage-winner Kuss, who had been on guard duty for Roglič all week, and ahead of everyone else. It added up to a 29-second GC win ahead of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), with Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) rounding out the final podium in third at 41 seconds back.
“When we heard Roglič wasn’t starting, we knew that it was going to be a day that the race could be turned upside down,” said team sport director Charlie Wegelius. “Dani was absolutely on top of his game. He really held his nerve and didn’t crack. It’s really nice to get a win like this for the whole group because everybody worked really hard to come back for these races.”
The victory is the first for EF Pro Cycling since its return from the COVID-19 lockdown, and comes as a salve after the team has faced some choppy waters on the financial side, with the economic fallout from the world pandemic forcing the team to reduce wages for riders and staffers alike.
For Martínez, it’s the fourth win of the 2020 season. He also won the Colombian time trial title and two stages with second overall at the Tour Colombia in February.
The brutal racing conditions across the Alps provided a preview of who will be in shape for the upcoming Tour, rescheduled to start August 29 in Nice.
When Martínez came hot out of the gates, the team rallied around him to ride into this weekend’s decisive climbing stages. Urán, racing for the first time since the Colombia tour in February, said it was a harsh return to competition after a long break.
“It’s been a really hard race, especially as it’s been so long since the last time we were racing,” Urán said. “I suffered a lot this week while trying to get back into the rhythm of it all, but in the end, I think for the team, and for me, it’s been an absolutely excellent race, we’re all really happy that Dani won.
“We’re going well and we’re now just hoping that everything goes really well for the Tour,” Urán said. “I think that the team can do good there, everyone has been working really hard and it’s nice to have won such an important race before heading to the Tour.”
Martínez’s Dauphiné win is just the third by a Colombian rider, somewhat surprising considering the depth of the Colombian peloton and typically how many mountains are featured in the important pre-Tour race. Martin Alonso Ramírez won in 1984, ahead of Bernhard Hinault and Greg LeMond, for Colombia’s first Dauphiné victory. Colombian legend Luís Herrera won on two occasions, in 1988 and again in 1991.
“It’s one of the most important races and I’m just so happy to have achieved it,” Martínez said. “I’m still so tired from the race and still can’t quite believe that it’s happened.”
Martínez won’t have long to celebrate. The Tour starts in less than two weeks, and though EF Pro Cycling has yet to finalize its Tour roster, it’s almost a guarantee he will be among the starters in Nice.