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Daniel Martin Q&A: On defending at Liege, maturing, and racing without watts

With his Liège defense days away, Daniel Martin talks about his growth as a rider, love for cycling, and avoidance of power data in races

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GENK, Belgium (VN) — Some racers seem like robots, with the numbers and data and specific plans.

Daniel Martin is not that bike racer. Daniel Martin is not a robot.

Martin (Garmin-Sharp) doesn’t race knowing his wattage output. Doesn’t want to know. And if you look at his results, he doesn’t need to know. He says it’s bad for his head anyways, to know he’s going harder than he should. Racing is racing, isn’t it? And one goes as hard as one must to win.

Martin, 27, is the reigning Liège-Bastogne-Liège champion. He pulled out of the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday, citing knee pains, but poured it on at Flèche Wallonne Wednesday, riding to second. He sat down with VeloNews the week before his Liège defense.

VeloNews: Is there a bit of different feeling for you this year here? More pressure, now that you’ve won this race once?
Daniel Martin: I think every year I kind of develop a bit psychologically, as a rider and as a person. I always love doing these races. From the first year I did them, from when I was a kid watching them on TV, there’s been something about this week of racing. Hanging out with these boys, too. I get to spend 10 days in a hotel, hanging out with my mates. It’s a really fantastic atmosphere on this team. And I think that really helps you … obviously in the past we’ve been relatively successful. Even last year coming into it I’d been sixth in Flèche and fifth in Liège. And so we were optimistic about what we could achieve. I don’t think any of us could imagine that we’d be coming away with victory, but yeah, it happened. And to be starting Liège this year with the No. 1 on my back? It’s going to be incredible. It’s a pleasure to ride that race and I’ll be really proud pinning those numbers on. But at the same time, that’s last year. It’s done, it’s finished. And this year is completely different year and in my head we’re starting from scratch.

VN: The northern classics have their own intensity, certainly. Why do you like these Ardennes races so much?
DM: I just love the one-day races. It’s same as [Giro di] Lombardia, also one of my favorite one-day races. I just love that. Starting completely fresh, everything you’ve done to prepare properly for it. The two or three days before you’re just tapering. You probably feel as good as you can possibly feel at the start line of these races. Especially Liège, after the four days. Flèche you always feel Amstel a little bit, but Liège, it’s always you’re super fresh and it’s everything on the line. One tactical mistake, you lose the race. If you’re too far back and have to waste energy moving up, it’s potentially race-losing. You have to save as much energy as possible. It’s the freshest guy in the final who wins. It’s the one who’s tactically judged it well enough the whole race. A lot can happen in seven hours. It’s that concentration for six-and-a-half, seven hours. It’s doing everything. You concentrate on eating, drinking, where you are in the peloton at all times, choosing the right time and place to stop for a piss. It’s knowing the course. It’s a big mix. It’s the history of the race. [Liège is] the oldest race of the year — it’s just a special day on the cycling calendar and it’s a special course and yeah, it’s just something. They’re races … I just love that starting completely fresh, finishing absolutely exhausted. There’s no second chances.

VN: Are guys like you, GC guys who target these classics, a dying breed?
DM: I think it’s coming back again. It’s the same guys in the front of the stage races as there are in these hilly one-day races. It’s strongest man wins. And by nature I’m not the most calculating type. I’ve tried riding the calculating way and it doesn’t suit me. Psychologically I don’t know what it is … but it’s better. I prefer racing like at the Tour last year. Every day people were laughing at me … day by day, day by day. I just did the best every day. And it wasn’t a lie. I’m better if I just try to do my best every single day. Obviously the flat stages I’m not going to be trying to win. But I treated it as 21 one-day races because psychologically it’s so much better for me. It’s that same thing that I’m good at recognizing opportunities. The same as when I won the [Tour] stage last year. Maybe if I was riding for GC I wouldn’t have been so brave to attack and risked — I would have been worried about losing sixth on general rather than, like, actually trying to win a stage. And in the end, a stage win, it’s far more important. Especially when you get sick and lose everything in the last week, you know? It’s just … maybe I’ll lose that with maturity you know? But I don’t know. People seem to like my aggressive style of racing, too. That’s why I do cycling. I have fun. I love the aggression. I love being aggressive. I love attacking. I love being in the front and, yeah, the last few years I’ve become strong enough to be able to implement the tactics that I’ve dreamed of in the past and always wanted to do.

VN: Right. It’s a lot different being able to do something than thinking it.
DM: Exactly. I’ve always known what’s right to do. Like, the final of Flanders, watching it on TV. Roubaix. I know exactly what I’d need to be doing. I’d never be there in a million years to be able to implement them. It’s nice — I’ve always seemed to have had quite a tactical brain and been able to read races quite well. But it’s a newer thing, being strong enough to be in the situation to make the race-winning move.

VN: Last year was great for you. Stage win at the Tour, and you won a monument. This year what would satisfy you?
DM: I just want to stay healthy and do my best again. You always — it’s just keep enjoying racing. When I’m enjoying racing the results seem to follow. Yeah, I would like to win more races, but obviously riding ProTour races week in and week out, it’s kind of difficult. It’s such a high level all the time. I’d really love to win a stage at the Giro [d’Italia], because then I’ve won a stage in each grand tour. And at the age of 27, that would be pretty remarkable. And then at the same time, yeah, the one thing missing from my palmares at the moment is definitely a GC result in a grand tour. … So it’s kind of — it’s something that’s a bit in the back of my mind that’s annoying me. I don’t know how far into the top 10 I can go at the Giro or Vuelta or the Tour. But, you know, it’s first the Giro. So we’re going to try and ride GC there, but by taking it day by day again. It’s definitely a course that suits me.

VN: Racing is still fun for you, it seems like.
DM: Oh, I love it. I love it. I think being on this team helps. What other team went out on a boat in a lake two days before Amstel? This fun side of this team, you know? These guys are friends. It just makes it so much easier to come to these races, but on race day, the race face comes out. But because we’re so close, we definitely pull for each other. We’re united and that’s very important, especially this week of racing. I think these are dangerous races. Most years I’ve had a crash in one of these races. It happens. You’ve got to be willing to risk your neck for each other. But I love cycling. It’s what I enjoy doing, and I’ve always said that when I stop enjoying it I’ll retire. It’s too hard a job to do if you don’t enjoy it.

VN: Is all this science killing the romance in cycling?
DM: It’s technology, you know? Technology affects every sport. Look at Formula One. It’s all to do with computers now. And football is trying desperately to prevent technology taking away the flaws in refereeing. And they call that romanticism. I think it’s just a different state, a different type of riding. And it depends on how you ride, how you are as a person. Yeah, it’s, for me, I’ve never looked at power during a race, and it actually does my head in if I do. I can go a lot deeper when I’m not looking at the power, because I think there’s so many riders who know what power they can do in training. In racing, for me anyways, it’s a completely different animal. I suck at training camp every year. I get my ass kicked. And then, in the races, I seem to be like, ‘oh, ok, I’m actually pretty good.’ So it’s a different beast, training versus racing. I’ve always been able to race a lot harder than I can train.

VN: I guess it’s better than the opposite, isn’t it?
DM: Definitely.