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When the Tour de France got underway in Germany last Saturday, Dan Martin had numerous reasons to be motivated. His ninth place last year was one. His strong season was another. Results such as third overall in Paris-Nice, second in both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, plus third in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné showed him he was on a career-best run of form.
But there was another factor that fired him up. The last time the race started in Germany, a full 30 years ago, an Irishman started amongst the favourites and went on to win the race.
The anniversary of his uncle Stephen Roche’s success was something that was very much on Martin’s mind, ramping up his motivation even further.
“Obviously the Tour is unpredictable, a lot can happen,” he told CyclingTips prior to the start. “But I think barring bad luck and race circumstances, I definitely have the potential to improve on last year’s result.”
He wasn’t thinking of eighth or seventh or sixth. “Why not finish on the podium?” he said, putting it out there. “It would be incredible, especially 30 years on from Stephen’s achievement, to get as far as that podium in Paris.”
That may sound to some like the usual pre-race optimism – why not aim high? – but since then things have gone fully to plan. He’s avoided any mishap, steered clear of trouble and, in the first two uphill finishes, succeeded in gaining time on every GC rider save for Fabio Aru (Astana). He’s now sitting fourth overall heading into the big mountain stages.
There’s a long way to go to Paris, but each passing day inches Martin closer to that podium goal.
Taking a less impulsive approach
Martin’s ninth last year was his first time to take a top ten GC result in the Tour, but he’d shown his ability before. Past results include stage wins in the Vuelta a España (2011) and the Tour de France (2013), plus victories in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège (2013) and Il Lombardia (2014) Classics.
Athletic ability passes down mostly via maternal DNA and it seemed that, via his mother Maria, he’d inherited much of the same talent as uncle Stephen.
Martin also has a fastidious approach to the sport, pushing himself continuously. He had never finished in the top ten of the Tour before, tending to become ill in the final week. However that changed 12 months ago. He took second, fourth and sixth on stages en route to ninth overall, and believes he would have been higher up with different setup of his equipment.
“I am a bit full of regrets, because I know if I had my time trial bike set up the way it is now last year, I definitely would have been close to the podium,” he said. “I have made that much improvement.”
But bike setup aside, different tactics would also have closed the gap. On several occasions in 2016 he attacked early on during the final climb, but was hauled back and then gapped by the main GC riders.
The kind of surprise surges that won him the 2010 Tour of Poland are less likely to succeed in the French event.
“I know how to race the Tour de France now,” he said, accepting that different tactics would have been better. “I have never raced the Tour de France in the front before like that. And now I know it is different to the Vuelta.
“In the Vuelta those attacks that I did would have worked. And in this year’s Dauphine they worked, because it is a lot more open racing.”
So what’s the different between those races and the Tour?
He believes it is because far more is at stake.
“People don’t [take chances to] try to win the Tour de France,” he explained. “They try not to lose what they have got. They try to protect their fifth or sixth or seventh or eighth in general classification. But nobody rides for eighth in general classification in any other race of the year.”
Or, to put it another way: a solid performance in the Tour de France is vital for sponsors and teams, making them far more cagey about risky attacks.
“Here people race differently. But I know that now,” he said. “And I have learned a lot from last year. I think tactically I am a lot more calm, and that comes with confidence as well. I am a bit more calculating in the way I am riding. Hopefully that doesn’t mean more boring, but in the end it hopefully leads to better results.”
“I’ve never felt stronger going into the Tour”
Martin’s belief that he could podium in the Tour grew in the Critérium du Dauphiné. He was 32nd after day two, then improved to 28th, then 18th, then seventh, slipped to eighth on the penultimate day and then jumped to third overall by the end.
He was also second on the final stage, taking the runner-up slot behind stage victor and surprise overall winner Jacob Fuglsang of Astana.
Although he had also finished third overall 12 months ago, he said that the result this time around was more significant.
“The Dauphine was unexpected,” he said prior to the Tour start. “Similar to last year, everything had gone pretty well beforehand. But I had really held back in training. I hadn’t done any intensity. I just rode there to let the race do its job, as far as picking the form up.
“The legs were good there and, afterwards, I seem to have got even better. I have never felt stronger going into the Tour de France.”
The race got off to a solid start in Dusseldorf. Martin is a climber rather than a time trialist but, in finishing 57th, 49 seconds back, he kept in touch with the other GC contenders.
“In the end I was happy with my ride,” he told CyclingTips. “The weather conditions were far from ideal and also I had a problem with my TT bike before the start. So that was a very stressful moment. The same bike that I had used in Dauphine had suddenly become illegal.
“It was bizarre. It seems to depend on how the [UCI] jig is set up. We didn’t really understand it, but we only had to make a very, very small change.
“I did a good performance in the time trial. I think I could have maybe been a little bit better if I had taken more risks in the corners. But it is the first day of the Tour de France, and it is better to finish with your skin on.
“I didn’t lose any time to the main competitors. Only to Chris [Froome], really. So it was a good start for me.”
His team got a boost on stage two with the stage victory of Marcel Kittel, and then on stage three Martin went agonizingly close to a stage win. He was best of the GC contenders on the climb to the finish at Longwy, but the ramp wasn’t steep enough to see off the sprinters.
“I think in the end I effectively sprinted the last 600 metres,” he said. “It was just keeping momentum the whole time. Obviously I am never going to beat Sagan in a straight drag race. But I was obviously very happy to get third and to be sprinting against those guys. I would never have imagined it, it was very special.”
“I’m just in a very good place in my life at the moment”
Following that third place on day three, Martin avoided the chaos at the end of the next stage. Two separate crashes happened in the final kilometre, with a tangle between Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish causing the latter to hit the ground, to break his shoulder blade and to have to leave the race.
Day five was more his terrain, and on the final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles he was one of the very best. Fabio Aru (Astana) attacked early on and got a gap he was able to build on all the way to the finish. Martin had planned to leave things for a sprint, and believed that others would get Aru back.
“With BMC riding all day, I thought that maybe Richie would have gone after Aru. [When he didn’t], I thought that Sky were really going to put the hammer down and chase him down on the flat section.
“But in the end we kind of all looked at each other. Chris attacked and we were on his wheel. Then I tried to go and continue the movement as we had dropped a lot of the other guys. In the end we just kind of looked at each other again, and it was a case of everybody coming back for the final sprint to the line.”
In that sprint, Martin gapped Froome, Porte and the others, netting second on the stage and jumping up to fourth overall. Starting stage eight to Station des Rousses, he was just 25 seconds behind Froome, 13 behind Froome’s Sky teammate Geraint Thomas and 11 behind Aru.
“I’m definitely going better than last year,” he said. “I knew coming into this race that I had stepped up a level this year.”
So what have been the factors behind that?
“I think we already saw an improvement last year,” he answered, “just from my team circumstances. But I also learned a lot last year. I am just learning all the time, and the new team environment definitely helps with that. I learned what I need to do to really race well.
“I think another year of living in Andorra and learning how that training affects me has also been a factor. I’m that age as well [he is 30, an age around the time when Grand Tour riders peak]. I am maturing psychologically as well as physically.
“And I think the team also helps with that. There’s this belief. There’s no pressure. I go into races with this…you know you have got a strong team behind you, and you have got guys who are getting results everywhere. So you haven’t got this pressure to get results all the time.
“That said, it is not that I can’t deal with the pressure. It is more that it is a confidence going into every race. Every race, we go there trying to make the results and we believe that we can get a result. That is the difference. It is an environment that suits me very well and it has definitely led to this progression.”
There is one more factor too, something far away from competition. “I got married to my wife Jess last October. I am just in a very good place in my life at the moment, and that is showing in how I am racing.”
Looking to the upcoming stages, Martin believes Saturday and Sunday’s stages could be the hardest of the Tour. The soaring heat, heavy roads and the cluster of climbs on both days will all pummel the riders and reward those who are strong.
Of the two, he says Sunday will likely be more decisive.
“I think it is going to be completely brutal,” he told CyclingTips on Friday, about an hour after Kittel took his third stage win. “It could be the hardest day of the Tour.
“There are some really difficult climbs and then the possibility to lose a lot of time afterwards as well. People point out that it is downhill and then flat to the finish after the last climb [the Mont du Chat], but if you are not in the front group, if you are the one who gets dropped, you could lose minutes.
“On mountain top finishes, even if you are having a bad day you can still limit your losses to a minute. But if you are isolated on your own on the top of the last climb and there are a group of four or five riders in front willing to work together, in that 25 kilometres to the finish you can definitely lose two or three minutes.”
Confidence high, Martin is counting on gaining rather than losing. If he’s got the same legs as on stage five, he will seek to push forward on the climb and be sparking off moves rather than responding to him.
Much like his uncle 30 years ago, he will look for every opportunity to gain time and to move ever-closer to that podium he is seeking in Paris.