Ian O’Riordan: UCI must listen to the likes of Martin and Roche as they bow out

There is difference between suffering on the bike and fearing for your life

Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche in action for Ireland during training ahead of the 2013 UCI Road World Championships  in Florence, Italy. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche in action for Ireland during training ahead of the 2013 UCI Road World Championships in Florence, Italy. Photograph: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

 

A neighbour from down on Fiery Lane swung by last weekend riding a brand new electric bike and seemingly a little high on his own adrenaline tried to convince me this was the way forward. It’s a magnificent machine, he told me, a bit pricey but he’d already been across the mountain a few times and wasn’t finished yet.

It’s true what Hemingway said about learning the contours of a country best by riding a bicycle, “since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them”, and if all that’s made a little easier with a Bosch electric motor on board and extra wattage set into the drive train then no harm.

For the old school rider, and the professionals, naturally, part of what makes the sweating up those hills all the more memorable is the suffering that comes with it. So a motor to me will always be cheating – hence the rumour in the peloton some riders have tried to sneak down that bottom bracket route.

When it comes to the Grand Tours, “cycling is suffering”, as Fausto Coppi once said, and he knew what he was talking about: the original Il Campionissimo won who the Tour de France not once but twice.

“Cyclists live with pain. If you can’t handle it you will win nothing. The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.” Eddy Merckx said that, knew what he was talking about too, winning the Tour (and practically everything else in cycling) not once but five times.

Nowhere is that capacity for suffering more essential than in the riding of a three-week Grand Tour, even if all the pain is occasionally punctured by some moment of euphoria such as a stage win, and few riders of this generation or indeed before have endured more it than Dan Martin and Nicolas Roche – two of the hardiest bastards on the road, which for any cyclist is the perfect compliment.

That Martin and Roche shared so much throughout their careers – beginning of course with such close family ties – it is only apt they should race for the final time within a week of each other. After 14 seasons in the peloton, Martin will finish his professional career in Saturday’s Il Lombardia, the last Monument of the season, which he won in 2014, and finished runner-up in 2011.

Roche called time on his 17 seasons in the peloton after finishing sixth in last Sunday’s National Road Race in Wicklow, and like his cousin, his retirement wasn’t entirely unexpected: Roche will be 38 next season, Martin will be 36, and though certainly not ancient by professional cycling standards perhaps their time is indeed ripe.

Dan Martin celebrates after winning stage 17 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia from Canazei to Sega di Ala. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Dan Martin celebrates after winning stage 17 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia from Canazei to Sega di Ala. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

What they leave behind is a Grand Tour record that won’t be easily matched for a long time in Irish cycling history, if at all, passing by perhaps a little underappreciated. Between them they started in 43 Grand Tours, Roche starting in 24 and Martin in 19, winning seven stages between them, coming close on several more. It’s easily forgotten what it takes just to get a start in a Grand Tour, let alone finish one, and their record on that is equally impressive, Roche finishing 22 of his 24 starts, Martin finishing 15 of his 19 starts.

Surpassing his father’s podium record was always an impossibly tall order, still Roche continued to ride further away from Stephen in terms of Grand Tour appearances when he started the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, that 24th start, more than any other in Irish cycling history, also putting him further of head of Seán Kelly (who made 21 Grand Tour starts in all). In last year’s postponed Tour de France, Roche equalled his father’s 10 starts, his nine starts in the Vuelta a España also yielding two stage wins, plus a fifth and sixth overall.

When Martin produced one of the finest stage wins of 2021 with his summit victory on the 193km stage 17 of this year’s Giro, breaking away on the final climb up Sega di Ala, holding out by 13 seconds ahead of Portugal’s Joao Almeida, he also completed that rare hat-trick of Grand Tour stage wins, a feat only achieved by two other Irish riders in Shay Elliott and Sam Bennett.

Along with his two stage wins in the Tour de France (2013 and 2018), Martin’s fourth place in the 2020 Vuelta, having sat in third overall for the first two weeks, was also the best Irish Grand Tour placing since Kelly won it outright in 1988.

What they also share in leaving behind their careers at this point is their changing perception of cycling, specifically in terms of race safety. Both hinted strongly at the fact the risks were no longer worth the rewards, Roche enduring more crashes in the last two seasons than in his whole career, Martin admitting the fun had simply gone out of it, especially when you’re picking yourself in pieces off the road more often than not.

During that Giro last May, Martin started stage 11 – which included four dusty gravel trails that crisscrossed Tuscan wine country – just 52 seconds behind race leader Egan Bernal, eighth overall on GC; by the end of the day, he’d conceded over six minutes to Bernal, dropping to 18th on GC, his race for a podium position as good as over.

“I told my wife this morning that I won’t crash, so for me personally cycling is not worth the risk,” he said. “I had guys crashing all around me on the first section [of gravel] so I just did my own pace, I nearly came back but my licence is road cycling, so it’s not my thing . . . I just didn’t want to take the risk and that’s it.”

Tony Martin (no relation) said as much when signing off on his standout career with victory in the mixed time-trial at last month’s World Championships, to go with the German’s four individual titles: “Two times I was lying in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, full of blood and full of pain, at 36, and the dad of two daughters, you start questioning if it’s really worth it, what are you doing here?”

For anyone who races their bike for a living such risks are and always will be heaped beyond any reasonable doubt, only there is difference between suffering on the bike and fearing for your life. Cycling’s international governing body, the UCI, would do well to listen to all this before saying goodbye to plenty more hardy bastards on the road.

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