In the end, the deciding factor for Dan Martin wasn't the Covid-19 he picked up in March, nor the dangerous conditions he experienced in the Giro d'Italia in May. It wasn't the fatigue of riding four Grand Tours in the space of one year, culminating in a drained participation in the Tour de France in July.
Instead, it was a moment of quiet reflection in a hotel room, looking into a mirror and pondering two key questions he asked of himself. It was when he realised that neither of those two questions had a positive answer that he knew the moment had come.
After a decade and a half in the international peloton, after five Grand Tour stage wins, after two Classic victories and after enlivening countless races with instinctive, spur of the moment attacks, it was time to stop.
Speaking to The Irish Times during last week’s Tour of Britain, likely the final stage race of his career, Martin explained what his thought process was when he weighed things up earlier this summer. “I went to my room and I thought, ‘okay, let’s have a think how much money I’d need to get, and what would be my ideal race programme?’ I came to the decision that it was irrelevant. And that was the turning point.
“The sport . . . it is draining. Since I made the announcement about stopping, I’ve realised just how many family and friends I’ve lost touch with. I’m so focused on cycling that I don’t have the mental energy to maintain relationships. You’re in this bubble of constant focus, and that’s intense.
“The intensity of the sport is just increasing with professionalism. And the demands are just getting higher and higher.”
Born to an Irish mother and an English father, namely Stephen Roche's sister Maria and former professional cyclist Neil Martin, Dan Martin grew up in Birmingham, declared for Ireland in 2006 and moved to France the same year. He competed with the amateur VC La Pomme set-up before making his pro debut in 2008 and now, 13 years later, it's all drawing to a close.
In that time Martin has marked himself as one of Ireland's best ever cyclists. A strong climber with a never-say-die attitude, he made a breakthrough in the 2010 Tour of Poland with a long-range move that secured both a stage win and the overall honours.
One year later he beat future Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome to win a mountain stage in the Vuelta a España; two years after that, he won the Volta a Catalunya, took the prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic with a storming final-kilometre surge, then captured his first stage win in the Tour de France.
Many of Martin’s wins came about as a result of an at-times brilliant racing instinct about when and where to attack. This was evident in the final kilometre of the Il Lombardia Classic in 2014, when he clipped clear in a move reminiscent of his uncle Stephen Roche’s victorious surge in the 1987 world road-race championships.
He also got things perfectly right to win more stages in the Tour de France (2018), the Vuelta a España (2020) and in this year’s Giro d’Italia. All along he shrugged off pressure by insisting he raced for the fun of it; all along he said he’d stop if he was no longer having fun.
It’s now got to that point. “The sport is changing,” he explains. “It’s an incredibly professional environment now where every minute detail is controlled by the teams, obviously to optimise performance. It’s got to the extent that you’re told exactly how much food to eat, by weight, and also when to eat it and what to eat. And the training is all controlled too.
“It’s incredible where the sport has come from when I started racing. I look back at photos now, and you just see the difference, it is immense. But at the same time, for me personally, it’s lost a little bit of the attraction, in terms of the human side of it.
“With all the money involved in the sport now, all the sponsors are serious and the riders are even more serious. And that intensity, for me, is not sustainable anymore.”
At 35 years of age, Martin is not an old rider. Alejandro Valverde, for example, has just inked a deal to continue for another season. He is 41. And while Martin's intellect and sense of freedom meant he was unlikely to remain one of what French writer Albert Londres termed Les Forçats de la Route (The Convicts of the Road) for as long, he could have continued for another year or two. The legs, the results remain.
The problem boils down to the head. "Last year during the lockdown, I realised how nice it was to be at home for an extended period. The lockdown was six or seven weeks and then with training afterwards, I basically had three months of my life fully in Andorra. I'd never, ever had such an extended period; I was like, 'wait a minute, it is actually quite nice spending time with my wife and kids and being at home for such a long time'.
“In the end, I was struggling to think of any reasons why I should continue. The reason I went to the Giro [d’Italia] this year was that I had become bored of the same old programme. The spring stage races, then moving into the Classics, taking a break, doing the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse, riding the Tour de France, then maybe the Vuelta, maybe other races. I’d literally done the same race programme for probably 10 years.
“The reason I wanted to go to the Giro was partly to try and win the stage that I was missing from my palmarès [results], but also just to try something different. But after completing the Giro, I realised that it wasn’t the same old races I was bored of, it was just cycling I was bored of. I don’t like that word, I’m trying to think of a different word to use, but bored does kind of sum it up. I found other interests in life now I really want to spend time doing.”
Martin rode strongly in the Tour of Britain last week, finishing seventh overall, and is building up for what he wants to be a strong end of year campaign. He’d love to finish his career with a flourish, but doesn’t feel pressure to do so.
As he explains it, he doesn’t believe he needs to prove anything else. “I could literally get last in every race I do from now on and, for me, personally, it wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so relaxed going into racing, and that’s perhaps why I’m racing quite well at the moment.
“I’m sure that that’s why I was able to win the stage in the Giro last year and in the Vuelta last year, because I was going into it with almost a nothing-to-lose attitude.” Still, he jumps at the thought of taking another big win before he stops.
And then things will really change. “It’s time to just do something different with my life, to diversify my life, to enrich my life in different ways.” That means: being able to run with his wife Jess. That means: going swimming with his twin daughters Daisy and Ella. That means: supporting former Olympian Jess when she returns to running, perhaps – all going well – with an eye to her participation in the 2024 Olympics.
Enriching his life also means new challenges. He's an intelligent person who got seven A*s (higher than an A) and six As in his GCSEs, including a very high national grading in history. Pro cycling didn't really tap into that intellect, but things are likely to be more cerebral in the future. Martin is one of the founders of Rubix Venture Partners, an investments and advisory company backed by multiple top-level athletes from different sports.
Rubix has the stated goal of investing in companies which resonate with athletes, and which have sustainable and ethical approaches. Early partnerships include the likes of online training platform Zwift, real-time glucose monitoring platform Supersapiens, vegan food producer Jack and Bry and alcohol-free beer company Big Drop. More will follow and, if Martin works as hard as he did on the bike, the venture could be a big success.
He says he will always be a cyclist, and that he’s just stepping away from the competitive side of things. Will he miss it? “There will obviously be moments that I miss racing,” he answers. “I’m not worried about it, but I just know it is inevitable. This has been a part of my life for 17 years. I’m never going to have that feeling again of flying down a closed road at 60 kilometres an hour. But that was also a feeling that at times was completely terrifying.
“This is obviously exciting for the future. I think that’s the most important thing to highlight. I need to change the direction of my life. And I think it will be great for my mental health. This just feels like the right time.”
Dan Martin’s top career results
Tour de France stage wins (2013 and 2018), plus 6th, 8th, 9th overall.
Vuelta a España stage wins (2011 and 2020), plus 4th and 7th overall.
Giro d'Italia stage win plus 10th overall (2021)
Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic (2013)
Il Lombardia classic (2014)
General classification Tour de Pologne (2010)
General classification Volta a Catalunya (2013)