Dan Martin’s victory in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège last April has given him a new-found confidence
Irish rider feels his strength on the slopes will see him figure prominently
Dan Martin crosses the finish line to win the 99th Liege-Bastogne-Liege cycle road race last April. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Mont Ventoux. Sunday, July 14th. Bastille Day. Two hundred and 42 kilometres, the longest stage, the hot sun, the maddening crowd, leaning around each corner, the last 21km, eight per cent gradient, the barren lunar slopes, onto the Giant of Provence, and in the piecing together of the 100th edition of the Tour de France, all the myth, the obsession, the superstition and enduring tragedy rolled into one stage.
None of this will matter to Dan Martin, who will know every bump and twist on that road, ridden over it countless times already, because that’s what contenders for the Tour do, right?
“Not really,” he says. “I haven’t looked at any stage in detail. Not yet. I don’t think that actually suits me, when it comes to riding a three-week race. Sometimes knowing the roads can be a help, but also a hindrance. If an attack goes, and you know that in another 2km the road gets very hard, you might not be as willing to follow.
“Obviously we’ve got someone in the team who’s been over all the stages. But they always look so different when you race them, anyway. So I’m not sure how effective the reconnaissance trips actually are. For me, they’ve never been important. And the way the weather has been in Europe, this year, a lot of those climbs have been impassable, anyway, until the last few weeks. That’ll make it interesting for everyone.
“But when it comes to the mountains, if you’ve got the legs, you’ll be at the front. And yeah, any time the road goes uphill, I know I have the ability to win that stage. If you can win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, you can win a stage of the Tour.”
Embrun to Chorges, Wednesday, July 17th. Judgement Day. A 32km individual Alpine time trial, two second-category mountains, even for a natural climber like Dan Martin, the most technically challenging day of the Tour, same as any rider still warming towards the maillot jaune, nothing will be left to chance.
Didn’t Fausto Coppi spend hours teasing out the correct wrapping of his handlebar tape? Didn’t Eddy Merckx arrive at the 1970 Tour with 18 bikes, having personally counted out all 1,125 individual components of each one, drilled out for lightness, too?
“Yeah, it’s the one stage I have actually ridden,” he says, “on the way back from the Tour de Suisse, just to check out the course, what type of equipment to use. We just got new time trial bikes although I wouldn’t be obsessive about that, or superstitious, like some riders.
“Except for the shamrock. I do like to have a shamrock on my bike. It’s a little logo I designed myself, my sticker. I’m a little superstitious about that, actually. I started with a shamrock on my bike. Then one time I got a new bike, rode it, and crashed. I didn’t think about it. Then it happened again. Another new bike, no shamrock, and I crashed. Then I started to think about it. Now I don’t ride a bike without a shamrock on it. But I wouldn’t be over the top about it.”
L’Alpe d’Huez. Thursday, July 18th. D-Day. The first of three climactic mountainous stages, deciding the race proper, the 21 sweeping hairpin turns from Bourg d’Oisans to the summit, so good that this time they’ve decided to do them twice, the Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeleine coming less than 24 hours later, such an intensely physically exhausting bout of cycling that Dan Martin will finish the day force-feeding himself bowls of dry pasta, with just a drip of olive oil.
That’s what it takes for any rider to survive in the Tour de France, no?
“Actually we’re fortunate to have one of the best chefs in the peloton,” he says. “Seán Fowler has been with us the last few years, an American, who runs a great restaurant, outside Girona. On last year’s Tour he served up a different dish every night. He’d make a huge salad, some nice hors d’oeuvres, a starter, a main course, and dessert. It’s a full spread, huge variety, and tastes great. That makes it so much easier, because he really does serve up some delights.
“Still, by the end of it all, you do get pretty bored of eating. It does become a bit of a labour. People think, as well, that after the Tour you’d sit back and eat what you want. But when I got home, after last year, I ended up hardly eating at all. I was just so tired of it.
“It’s not a case of eating as much as you can, either. Some days, on an easy road stage, or the time trial, it might only a 3,000-calorie day. On those days you can’t eat as much as you want. You don’t want to put on weight. It is a balancing act, and one of the experiences I’ve gained from riding the Grand Tours, knowing how to fuel the body correctly. It’s still the old measure. If you’re hungry, your body needs fuel. But there are some days, in the mountains, after burning 6,000 calories, then you have to eat until you feel sick, then eat a little bit more.”
Annecy-Semnoz. Saturday, July 20th. Penultimate day. A mere 125km, one last brutal climb hors catégorie (“beyond categorization”), Mont-Blanc a backdrop on the summit, and even if Dan Martin can’t quite see Paris and the Champs-Élysées from there, he’ll certainly be sniffing it, won’t he?
“Well, no,” he says. “You just can’t start thinking about finishing in Paris ahead of the day-to-day aspects of the race. Last year, I was thinking too much about making it. Psychologically, it’s actually a lot easier to take it one day at a time, not think about the overall picture, what’s ahead.
“But just finishing, really, was the big thing last year. Because I think I went in a little bit intimidated, everyone telling me ‘this is the hardest bike race in the world . . .’ Now that I have finished it, it’s not like that anymore. I feel I can take more risks, go for it a little more. I’m not nearly as intimidated, by this monster that is the Tour de France. Effectively I’ve already conquered it. Now it’s a case of seeing how far I can go. Pushing myself every single day. And trying to win a stage, for sure.”
It’s five days before the Grand Départ – and Corsica’s first taste of the Tour – and for all this myth, obsession, superstition and enduring tragedy, that panoramic backdrop to the 100th edition of this race, Dan Martin is talking to me, from a hotel room in Girona, as if it’s just another bicycle race, which in some ways it is.
Girona is home now, has been in the six years since teaming up with Garmin-Sharp, the back story of his journey from Birmingham; his father Neil Martin, once one of Britain’s finest riders, his mother Maria Roche, sister of one of the finest riders ever, told many times.
As it happens the hotel is 200 metres from his apartment, but Garmin-Sharp have gathered together for a five-day training camp, working on team tactics and morale, before moving on to Corsica, and Martin is already completely tuned it. At 26, it may only be his second Tour, but he’ll start as joint team leader – along with Canadian Ryder Hesjedal – and justifiably so. It’s what happens when you win the Volta a Catalunya, and follow that by winning in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, two of the biggest prizes in the early season.
Having two riders vying for a top spot in the general classification might not sound ideal, but Martin sees no problem, knowing anything can, and does, happen on the Tour. A year ago, Martin came into the race still nursing a shoulder injury, from a crash at the Dauphiné, then spent the first week fighting a chest infection. On stage eight he finished 7:26 behind the winner, dropping to 69th overall, but recovered in the final week, three top-10 stage finishes moving him up to 35th overall. Hesjedal, who started as the 2012 Giro d’Italia winner, crashed badly on stage six, didn’t start the next day.
“That’s the way the team is approaching this race,” says Martin. “One day at a time, just let it play out on the road. It is looking very good as far as the team goes, strong on every front, and we should have opportunities every day, to make an impression. I’m certainly going in with confidence, and with a strongly confident team backing me.
“It makes for a very strong position, but at the same time, as a climber, you have to get to the mountains first, in a strong position. That’s why you can only take it day by day. There’s a full week of hard, dangerous racing before we get to the first climb this year.
“After that there’s another five flat, dangerous stages, before Ventoux. Of course to win up Ventoux would be a dream. And this year it is a realistic dream. For now I’m just concentrating on getting off Corsica in one piece. Then the team time trial, in Nice, on stage four. To win that, with a team that I count as friends, would be an incredible way to start. Morale would be sky high.”
Yet the great scattering of mountain stages, including a couple of complete unknowns in the Pyrenees, makes the race for the polka dot every bit as interesting, if not as difficult, as that for the maillot jaune. One is likely to be entirely independent of the other.
“For sure, we are looking at the polka dot,” says Martin. “To take it all the way to Paris would be huge. We have the possibility, but the race is different this year, with so many hard climbs. Last year had only three mountain top finishes. To go with a break, sacrifice a lot of energy, chase the polka dot in breakaway fashion, and try to ride for GC as well, is not realistic. Again we’ll have to let the road decide. I mean if you lose a lot of time in the first week then maybe the polka dot would become a bigger goal.”
As he talks, the maturity, the confidence that comes with beating most of the world’s best riders already this year, becomes increasingly evident: the Tour de France will always present the unexpected, and yet with the experience of last year Martin clearly knows what to expect.
“Yeah, I am more relaxed about it. I went in last year after crashing, could barely train the three weeks before, and maybe could have been pushing for GC in that last week. That gave me confidence, that I do have potential. But riders will recognise me this year, know about my fast finish, and maybe won’t be as keen to take me to the finish. It changes the dynamic of how I race, and how other riders react to me.
“But I’m enjoying that status. Even my team-mates are saying I’m a more dangerous rider now, because of my own confidence. I am. I’ve been riding sky high since the start of the year, so at the same time I don’t feel any pressure. It’s such a busy schedule. What I found last year was that you have no personal space, at all. It’s 100 per cent concentrated, for three weeks. Every thought is about the race. There is not one moment when you’re alone. Mum and dad and my grandmother are coming to Nice, I know, but I don’t expect to see them. It’s such a mad circus, impossible to have any time.
“Whatever happens, I’ve already had an incredible season, so everything else now is something of a bonus. I know I’m in super condition again, and it’s about shooting for the top again. That’s why I’m treating every stage as a one-day race, to make the effort to be at the front, not lose any time. I’m thinking of it as 21-race winning performances in 21 days. If that’s the way you approach it then GC will look after itself.”
Perhaps, more than anything else, what separates his rise to this level of the sport from what anything before is the fact the doping question, rather than coming at the start, comes at the end, the result of the insistently squeaky clean reputation of his team Garmin-Sharp, their no-needle policy and refusal to allow any uncertified medical assistance, and Martin’s own moral stance on the issue, that cycling for him was always far less about winning than the simple pleasure of turning over each pedal as smoothly as possible, and that this, he believes, might be the cleanest Tour de France of modern times.
“I hope so. I’m a cycling fan too. And I’d like a good clean fight, as they say. You never know what’s going to happen. But the way cycling is going, and when you look at what I’ve been able to achieve this year, it does give you confidence, that the sport has cleaned up its act. A good clean Tour fight.
“That’s an exciting prospect for myself, because I know I’ve been at the front at all the races I’ve ridden this year, and see no reason why I can’t be at the front here.”