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While Sky’s Egan Bernal has enjoyed most of the limelight at the Amgen Tour of California, his Colombian compatriot Daniel Martínez (EF Education First-Drapac) came into the race with markedly less hype.
The biggest news story surrounding Martínez was his journey back to form after a period off the bike — earlier this year, Martínez ended up in the hospital when a motorist punched him in the face during a training ride in Italy.
EF Education First-Drapac manager Jonathan Vaughters took it upon himself to talk up Martínez’s chances this week in California. In Vaughters’s estimation, Martínez was going to end up on the podium.
“You’ll see,” he was saying on the opening day of the race.
Sure enough, Martínez has lived up to Vaughters’s ample praise. Barring catastrophe in Saturday’s sprinter-friendly finale in Sacramento, the 22-year-old from Bogotá will indeed finish on the overall podium.
That’s a big relief for Martínez. He had been showing strong form in the early goings of the year, taking multiple top 10s at the Colombia Oro y Paz and the Volta a Catalunya, before his run-in with an over-aggressive driver threw a wrench into his racing program.
“I was preparing, really motivated for País Vasco, but the incident slowed me down,” Martínez said. “I couldn’t go to País Vasco, had to stay home resting. For sure, it held me back a bit but it’s all good now. I got back to training the next week and we made it to the Ardennes okay.”
More than a return to form, Martínez’s performance in California was a hint of the potential he has for bigger and better results as he continues to develop. He joined EF after three years at the Pro Continental level. Racing with Team Colombia and then Wilier Triestina, he proved himself as a capable climber from a young age, finishing eighth overall at the Tour of Utah when he was just 19.
Wanting to jump up the WorldTour, he signed with EF over the offseason; Martínez says his compatriot Rigoberto Urán, the team’s GC star, had a hand in his transfer.
For a burgeoning climbing specialist, a strong ride to finish fifth on Gibraltar Road in stage 2 was no major surprise. Two days later, however, Martínez delivered the 10th fastest time in the stage 4 time trial — even besting TT specialist teammate Taylor Phinney.
“Physically you can look at [Martínez] and think he’s going to go in one direction because he’s small and light, but you saw, he can time trial really well,” EF sports director Tom Southam said. “He was the best out of all the guys in front of him in the GC. He finished pretty close in the Colombian TT nationals this year [six seconds behind winner Bernal], so he’s pretty good in that direction as well.”
On the back of his solid performance against the clock, Martínez rode into stage 6 in third overall. He narrowly defended his spot on the provisional podium on the tough climb to South Lake Tahoe.
In Southam’s opinion, the best is yet to come.
“I think he’s got a lot of room to go. He’s 22. You can see how young he is, physically,” Southam said. “He’s got room to develop.”
Martínez has already ridden two grand tours, making two Giro d’Italia starts during his stint in the Pro Continental ranks. After a post-California break, he may race the Tour de France.
The endurance required to fight for three-week results may still be a little ways off. For now, one-week stage races offer a nice balance of opportunities — he can hunt results while continuing to improve his game as a GC contender.
Being a successful stage racer is about more than watts per kilogram. Southam sees Martínez as the type of rider who can grow into a capable leader as he continues to get chances to lead the team. Although Martínez is in his fourth year as a pro, the Tour of California has been one of only a handful of chances he has had to be a GC leader in a WorldTour race.
“He’s a quiet guy. He’s very mature and very serious about his job,” Southam said. “That shows. It shows to everybody. Even if he’s not the loudest guy in the team or shouting at people to go do this that and the other.”
Martínez says he’s working on the team leadership aspect gradually and having fun with it. Podium performances in big races make the latter part a lot easier.
“You don’t become a leader overnight,” he said. “I’ll keep learning and enjoying it.”
Part of that learning process is self-belief. That should only grow as Martínez continues to rack up strong GC results in big races.
“Leading comes. Leading is your character, it’s people wanting to do a job for you,” Southam said. “Even if you don’t have the tools straightaway to lead a team in terms of vocally dealing with people, you have to have the right character where people say, ‘You know what, I’m going to put my ass on the line for this kid.’ And he has that.”