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Inches from Fleche Wallonne podium, Martin underlines Ardennes potential

Irishman comes back from late flat for fourth on the Mur de Huy and turns attention toward Liège–Bastogne–Liège

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HUY, Belgium (VN) — Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) edged closer to winning one-day classic Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday. After finishing sixth last year, he placed fourth today, just inches from the podium.

“It was about timing, isn’t it?” Martin told VeloNews. “I was waiting and waiting, wondering when my luck was going to kick in.”

The 26-year-old Irishman wiped the dirt and exhaustion off his face, caught his breath, and thought about what had just happened down the road. After last year, he knew he had to stay cool on the final Mur de Huy climb.

Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) tested that resolve. The Colombian shot free surprisingly early on the finish climb. Martin waited, however, and stuck to the favorites’ wheels, staying with riders like world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and eventual winner Daniel Moreno (Katusha).

“Someone always goes early, but I was waiting on the climb. It’s important to do in this race,” Martin continued. “When the guys went hard on the steep part, I just paced myself. It was the same last year, with 200 meters to go, everyone else starts to blow and I came past them in 50 meters.

“I just got a little bit stuck behind guys in that part of the climb today, between 250 and 200 meters. I hesitated and couldn’t get through them then I went strong all the way to the line. To get so close to the podium …”

The result underlines Martin’s one-day prowess: sixth last year in Flèche Wallonne, fifth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and second in the 2011 Giro di Lombardia. In 2010, he won the Japan Cup and Italy’s Tre Valli Varesine.

He appears that much sharper and confident this year. Martin arrived for the Ardennes classics with an overall win at the Volta a Catalunya already in the bag. Only a crash held him back from performing better in the Amstel Gold Race on Sunday.

A flat tire 20km from the finish on Wednesday didn’t stop him.

“Peter Stetina was there for me, straight away, gave me his wheel, no question. Then it was a matter of getting back on. I didn’t panic. I used the cars and didn’t use that much energy getting back on,” Martin explained. “The guys rode awesome all day. Nathan Haas’ first time doing this race, and he was impeccable all day.”

After a narrow miss, Garmin’s attention now turns to Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday. Martin animated the final selection there in 2012, attacking on the final ramp into Ans and dropping a number of favorites, including Gilbert, from the chase.

“I feel good and so we can look forward with optimism to Sunday’s race, another of my favorites,” Martin said later on Wednesday is a team statement. “I’m a year fitter and stronger, so who knows what can happen. The whole team is going well and today is a big confidence boost going into ‘La Doyenne.’ I believed I could do well, and the boys rode impeccably, so we’ll enjoy the result tonight and then start looking forward to the next big one.”

Martin told VeloNews that Ryder Hesjedal is better suited to Liège-Bastogne-Liège and that he is coming into form ahead of his Giro d’Italia defense, which opens in Naples on May 4. Hesjedal punctured today with 30km to go, but bounced back to place 19th. In Liège, Martin may support Hesjedal or, who knows, finally pull off an elusive big one-day win of his own.