It was not losing it, it was the manner in which it was lost. Dan Martin was left shell shocked at the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic yesterday, with his chances of taking a second straight win in the race dashed by cruel luck just 250 metres from the line.
Until that point Martin played things beautifully, keeping a steady hand and a cool head as the attacks fired off in the hardest one-day event in cycling. He sat and waited as dangerous rivals jumped clear inside the half hour then, in the final kilometre, he rose from the saddle and attacked hard on the drag up towards the finish.
The climb was where Martin made his victorious move 12 months ago and as he drew steadily closer to breakaway riders Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Damiano Caruso (Katusha), it looked like history was set to repeat itself. Pozzovivo cracked and Martin latched onto Caruso's back wheel just before the final 90 degree bend.
At that point, his momentum plus his rival's fatigue looked certain to carry him past, but his wheel slipped from under him and he crashed down hard.
Speculation was rife afterward that his pedal may have clipped the road, hoisting his back wheel off the ground and causing it to lose grip, but he insisted afterwards there was another cause.
“The team rode a beautiful race today. We did everything right and they gave everything for me all day,” he stated. “I hit a patch of something on the road, I don’t know exactly what happened – it was like falling out of a tree – and down I went. Before I knew it, it was over.”
Had Martin won he would have been the first back-to-back winner since Michele Bartoli in 1997 and 1998. He also would have equalled Sean Kelly's two victories in the race.
Instead, the Australian Simon Gerrans led in a chase group which overhauled Caruso inside the final 100 metres, with the Orica GreenEdge rider beating Spaniard Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) plus the Pole Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma -Quick-Step) to snatch victory.
'Hit the floor'
Caruso took fourth, while Martin was rueing what might have been. "I think there were tears in my eyes before I hit the floor. I'm just so sorry," he said. "I know in my heart we did everything we could have to get me where I needed to be. I'm heartbroken I couldn't deliver the win for the team but I'm proud of how they rode for me and of Tom [Jelte Slagter] finishing sixth. We'll just have to come back next year and try again."
While Martin didn’t get the victory he sought, he did ride in a manner which underlined his tactical savvy and also proved that he is one of the best riders in the sport.
His next big objective is the Giro d’Italia; the race begins in Belfast in less than two weeks’ time, and his Liège performance, his second place in last Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and his obvious good form cements his status as one of the top contenders.
Martin has already taken stage wins in the Vuelta a España and the Tour de France, and winning one at the Giro would complete the rare hat-trick of Grand Tour stage wins. However, there is also a growing sense that he could do more than that; at 27 years of age, his team states, and he accepts, that it is time for him to chase the general classification in a three-week race.
If that happens, the cruel blow he suffered yesterday will be considerably lessened.