Dan Martin hoping to put injury-ravaged season well behind in Vuelta a Espana

The Garmin-Sharp rider feels that mentally he’s never been in the better shape

It's been a difficult season thus far for Ireland's Dan Martin. Crashes and bad luck have complicated things, but he tells Shane Stokes that he's motivated for the Vuelta a Espana and believes his form is precisely where it needs to be starting the race.

August 28th, 2011: With five kilometres to go until the end of stage nine of the Vuelta a Espana, Dan Martin attacks from the overall contenders' group on the final climb of La Covatilla, near Salamanca. The Garmin-Cervelo rider bridges across to his first cousin and fellow Irishman Nicolas Roche and then grinds on ahead, battling the gradient. While both riders are caught by a small chase group near the summit, Martin still has more left in his legs.

The Briton Bradley Wiggins is in strong form and will go on to finish third overall in the race, one year before winning the 2012 Tour de France. He drives the group towards the line, turning over a brisk pace and whittling the group down to six riders, but Martin shows patience and confidence and waits.

He sits fifth in line while Wiggins continues to turn over a high pace, then surges forward inside the final 150 metres. Showing an impressive turn of speed, Martin sprints in well clear of runner-up Bauke Mollema, with eventual race winner Juan Jose Cobo three seconds back in third and Wiggins and Chris Froome – the riders who would win the Tour de France for the next two years – netting fourth and fifth.


Stage win

The result is Martin’s first ever Grand Tour stage win and one of the best Irish performances in decades. It is also the moment he proved he could beat the world’s best riders in the sport’s top events. * * * Three years later, Martin today begins the same race wanting – nay, needing – another strong performance. His 2013 season was an impressive one, with victory in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege Classic, the first Irish stage win in two decades in the Tour de France plus overall success in the Volta a Catalunya helping him to sixth in the world ranking by the end of the year.

This season, though, hasn’t gone to plan.

Martin deliberately had a slow build-up early on, reasoning that a delay in hitting form should help him better hold peak condition between Liege-Bastogne-Liege until the end of the Giro d’Italia. He looked to be in the perfect position when he finished second in La Fleche Wallonne, four days before Liege, but then his luck turned.

Attacking in the finale of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and looking set for a repeat win, he crashed on the final corner and lost his chance.

There was even bigger heartbreak in the Giro d’Italia. Martin was riding the team time trial with his Garmin-Sharp squad and hit a pothole on Belfast’s rain-slicked streets; he walloped to the ground, shattering his collarbone, and was out for weeks.

No Giro, no Tour, and no wins thus far in 2014. Fortunately, things have been more encouraging of late. Last week Martin finished second and third on stages of the Tour de l’Ain and ended up third overall. The performance gave him a major psychological boost prior to the Vuelta and convinced him he is on track.

“Mentally, I am in probably in the best shape I have been,” he said. “In the Tour last year I went in in top form. This year I really think I am getting better every day towards the race. That is a really exciting prospect as far as being able to build form as the Vuelta goes on.

“The third week is going to be really difficult so it is going to be very important to go in really fresh and keep getting stronger. I think I have got that advantage over everybody after obviously not having raced much this year.”

Final stage

Martin might well have won the final stage of the Tour de l’Ain, but was caught out due to an error in the race roadbook which is provided to teams. That showed a twisting, tricky descent after the final ascent, and he based his tactics on that. He attacked on the climb and went over the top clear of the other riders, but then found out that the drop down the other side was on straight, wide and exposed roads.

Riding into a headwind, he was caught before the line and had to be content with second. “I am really happy with how things ended up. Every day I was getting better and better. There was a noticeable difference between Friday and Saturday,” he said. “I was just improving every day. By the end of it, I felt really, really strong. I was really making the race and taking it to the guys on the climbs.”

The Vuelta a Espana begins today with a 12.6km team time trial in Jerez de la Frontera and hits the first mountains on Monday and Tuesday. There will be a total of eight summit finishes in all, starting next Thursday, and while there will also be two individual time trials, climbing specialist Martin is pleased with the route profile.

He’s also happy with the punchy nature of the course. “I do think the shorter distances suit me. It is not like the Giro, it is not like it becomes a diesel slog in the last week,” he said.

“You don’t get that real emptiness in the last week. It makes the racing a lot more explosive and that suits my character as well.”

Martin will start the race as co-captain of the Garmin-Sharp team. Former Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal will have the same billing.

The race has a star-studded line-up and could well end up a more hotly-contested event than the Tour de France. Martin is trying to keep pressure off himself and sidesteps a question about his expectations, but it’s clear that he is highly motivated and very hungry for results. “To have at least three of us, maybe four, sniffing around the mountains is going to be great,” he said, referring to that quartet of himself, Hesjedal, Talansky and Cardoso.

“To have that strength in numbers is something that this team has rarely seen in the past. It is going to be exciting to be up there in the race with such a strong team. Personally, it is looking quite good at the moment. I am feeling really healthy, definitely the best I have felt this year. It is exciting and I’m looking forward to getting started.”