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CALPE, Spain (VN) — Tony Martin is reinventing himself following a season fraught with frustration and success.
Despite winning a Tour de France stage over the cobblestones to Cambrai and capturing the yellow jersey before crashing out of the race in stage 6, the Etixx – Quick-Step rider lost the world time trial championship for the second year in a row in 2015. Just as Tiger Woods once rebuilt his swing to stay competitive on the links, the 30-year-old Martin is undergoing a makeover to keep his edge.
“This will be my ninth season as a professional, and it’s good to try new things,” Martin said during a media day last week. “I have new objectives, new motivation, and changes in my training. I’m excited about the season.”
In an Olympic year, when he typically would be aiming for gold, Martin is facing a mountain of reality. He hasn’t won the world time trial crown since 2013 — Bradley Wiggins beat him in Ponferrada in 2014 and he was a distant seventh in Richmond — and the hilly profile of the 2016 Olympics course, with more than 3,000 feet of climbing, simply isn’t ideal for his build.
“The Rio course is not good for me. It’s more for climbers than pure specialists like me,” said Martin, winner of the silver medal in London 2012 on a flatter course. “I will go for the medals, like I did in London, but the gold medal is not realistic.”
Martin, once the favorite in nearly every time trial he started, signaled Sky’s Chris Froome and Giant – Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin, two riders who can climb better than he can, as the top candidates for gold in Rio.
Rather than putting everything on the Olympics, he’s spreading his bets and will take on the northern classics for the first time of his career. It’s a big bet, but Martin is hoping to take a page from Trek – Segafredo’s Fabian Cancellara, a rider who’s reveled both against the clock and over the cobbles. Cancellara transitioned from being nearly unbeatable against the clock, winning four TT titles from 2006-10, to becoming a major force on the pavé, winning five of his six northern classics victories from 2010-13.
“People have been telling me for years to try the cobblestones, that I could do well,” Martin said. “After winning the stage in the Tour last year, I was sure I should try it. Now is the right time to try.”
Even teammate Tom Boonen said Martin has the physique and power to ride well on the cobbles, with Paris-Roubaix ideal for his characteristics. Martin’s transition to the pavé will include stops at Omloop Het Nieuwsbald, Strade Bianche, and Dwars door Vlaanderen. There’s no free pass, not on a team as deep as Etixx, and he will need to fight his way onto the northern classics team for the major races at E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and Roubaix.
“It’s going to be difficult, but I am sure I can go well over the pavé,” Martin said. “I have a lot to learn, especially about the key moments of the race. The classics are very different than racing a grand tour.”
Martin’s season of retooling also includes tweaking his time trial position as well as working on new materials with the team’s principal sponsors, including Specialized. He’s easing into 2016, with an early-season focus on the northern classics, before using the Tour as preparation for the Rio Games, and later the world championships in Qatar. It will be a busy year.
Despite his new interest in the cobbles, he’s not giving up on time trials. Martin, who has won more than 30 time trials since dethroning Cancellara as the king of the clock in 2010, said he’s still motivated by the clock. He wants to get his crown back, and this year’s flat power course in Qatar in October presents an ideal opportunity. In 2014, Wiggins upended Martin’s streak of three consecutive world time trial championships. Martin lost the winning difference on one short but steep climbing section. Last year in Richmond, after coming back from a broken collarbone that knocked him out of the Tour while donning the maillot jaune, Martin was off the podium pace with seventh at 1:16 behind, his worst worlds showing since he turned pro in 2008.
“I want to show that I am back,” Martin said of the Qatar worlds. “The worlds will be an open race. We’ve changed some things, and I want to win again.”
Cobbles, Rio, Qatar — there seems to be no stopping Martin’s ambitions, but there’s more. The arrival of compatriot Marcel Kittel not only allows Martin to speak German with a teammate (they were rooming together at the team camp in Spain), but he will likely take a more active role in the bunch sprints. Mark Cavendish took Mark Renshaw with him to Dimension Data, leaving Etixx a few warm bodies short in the leadout train for Kittel.
“We will see Tony helping in the sprints for Marcel,” sport director Brian Holm said. “He won’t be the last man, but he’s so strong, he’s good for the last few kilometers at the front.”
If 2016 wasn’t ambitious enough, the 2017 Tour will start on German roads for the first time since 1987. The race will start with a 13km time trial, which should favor the powerful German.