Riding the Volta a Catalunya as one of just three former winners in the race, Dan Martin began the WorldTour events on Monday as a watched rider. He’s a strong climber, knows the area well and, having lived in Girona for many years, regards it as his home event.
Martin’s prime target for the spring is the hilly spring Classics in April. His racing this week is part of his build-up towards that, but is also a means to an end in itself.
“Any result is going to be a confidence boost before the Ardennes,” he said, making clear that he is not just making up numbers.
“I have trained really hard. As is normally the case, I am not here to ride around any race. I am here to do the best I can. We will see what that is at the end of the week.”
The Irish rider is aiming to move on to a new level this year. He’s a past winner in Catalunya, took Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia in the past and has also won stages in the Tour de France and Vuelta a España.
However, at 29 years of age he knows that he is now in his prime years. If he’s to step up from those past achievements, if he is to aim even higher, now is the time to deliver.
Moving to Etixx-QuickStep after eight years with the Slipstream/Garmin/Cannondale setup is part of that.
“It has been a really smooth transition,” he says, talking about that transfer. “I feel really at home here. The change in environment has definitely done me good.
“It has just refreshed me. That is the important thing to highlight.”
The move has helped Martin to press a reset button in a number of ways. One is in mixing up his training, trying out new things under the guidance of the team coaches.
He previously favoured explosive work, but this time around has also concentrated on increasing his base.
He doesn’t say it, but that could pay off in Grand Tours by giving him a greater day-by-day consistency.
“I have done more kilometres this winter than I have every done,” he explains. “That is down to the new team and the number of training camps we have.
“There were three kilometre-heavy training camps – one in December and two in January. And then I started racing that bit earlier too.”
Martin’s first event of the year was the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in early February, and he wasted little time in grabbing opportunities. He attacked on the final climb on stage two and hit the line first, clocking up his first victory in well over a year.
In terms of making an early impression, winning on day two with a new team was an emphatic way to do it. “It was super,” he reflects, “but it was unexpected. We’ll take it.
“It gives me a lot of confidence, just to have the team work like that for me. That really summed up the attitude of the team.
“As you can see, we are winning week-in, week-out. That is down to the attitude of the management and the directors and the way the way that we approach races together. It is a real optimistic view on tactics and an aggressive view, which suits me.”
The team has a much bigger budget that that of his previous squad and as a result, has some of the biggest names in the sport on board. His team-mates include successful competitors such as Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, Tom Boonen, Zdenek Stybar and Niki Terpstra.
But Etixx-QuickStep also has a particular outlook from those in charge, and this too is a factor.
“The staff and the management are used to winning. And it is a disappointment if they don’t win,” he says. “So it is a different pressure. In the last four years they have had around about 60 victories each season.
“There is always a bit of pressure at the start of the year to try to get back up to that.”
That outlook is slightly different to that at Martin’s former team, Cannondale. Of course, reaching the top step of the podium was important there too, but it happened less often and therefore there was more a sense of necessity and less of momentum.
It is said that success breeds more success. That snowball effect is something Martin believes to be tangible with Etixx.
“It is fun to be part of that,” he says. “Everybody going into the races has this optimistic, best-case scenario outlook. It is not just thinking about winning a stage…if we don’t do it, we are just disappointed.
“We have such a strong roster of riders that every race we go to, we are surrounded by guys who know how to win as well. And that can make a big difference.
“And it also makes a difference pressure-wise. If you are on a bad day, there is someone else to take up the baton.”
A new path to some long-running goals
After Valenciana, Martin went to the Tour of Oman. He was tipped by some as a likely contender there, but things didn’t work out. He had a quiet race, aside from 11th place on stage one.
The race to Green Mountain has suited him in the past but this time around he had to be content with 27th, and the same position in the final general classification.
Martin said that he picked up a virus on the plane on the way over to the event. That helped him back during the race, and also lingered after he returned to Europe.
As a result of that, his programme was changed and things ended up being rejigged.
“I was healthy again before Tirreno, but I just didn’t feel I was in the right position to be competitive,” he said. “So we decided to put my WorldTour racing back a week until Catalunya. That gave me the chance to really get some hard quality training in at home.
“As it turned out, it worked really well because there was no mountain stage in Tirreno. It would have been a bit of a waste me being there anyway.”
While competing in Italy might in other years have sharpened his form prior to Catalunya and then the Classics, Martin is open to the thoughts of trying something new. Following a set pattern is a way to play things safe, but big breakthroughs are seldom achieved by doing the same thing time and time again.
Taking a new approach could pay off well. “I am excited to have this change of programme now. It is probably meant to be, a little bit. I’ll do Catalunya, and then the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. I get to try different run-up to the Ardennes than what I have had in the last couple of years, and we will see how it works.”
One slight drawback by not racing in Tirreno is that he had an element of uncertainty about his form heading into Catalunya. He admitted on the eve of the race that he wasn’t sure how things were going to go.
“It is hard to say what to expect. I feel really good, but feeling good in training is different to racing,” he explained. “And it is such a top-quality field here. Everybody is saying it is the best field of the year.
“There is no doubting that. It is going to be a really difficult week’s racing, but it is going to be a perfect week to measure and see where we are. To see the improvements made over the winter.
“That said, I am feeling good. There is no real pressure on me here as we are thinking about the Ardennes and those are the real objective. But obviously we come to every race to try and get something out of it.
Come April, though, that slightly laissez-faire approach won’t be the one taken. His entire spring is built around being in peak shape for the big one day races, and both he and the team will have a tunnel vision approach to riding strongly in the Ardennes.
Of those three races, Martin states that Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège are the two that suit him best. He’s ridden well there in the past, winning Liège in 2013 and only missing out on a possible repeat the following season when he crashed on the final corner.
As for Flèche Wallonne, he was sixth in 2012, fourth in 2013 and second in 2014. On each occasion he appeared to come from a long way back on the climb. While he plays this down somewhat, the strength in depth of the Etixx-QuickStep team could help in making sure he is where he needs to be inside the final 500 metres.
But he sees possible gains early on too.
“Obviously the team does play a big part,” he says. “It is not just positioning on the last climb, it is positioning all day. It is a very stressful race, you have to keep out of trouble all day. They’ll help me with that.”
All going well, he’ll be able to finally make the Mur de Huy his own. It’s long been a goal and in just under one month’s time, he’ll have a big opportunity.
“It is a race I love,” he says. “We will definitely go in there motivated.”