Exactly six months after the highest overall finish of his career in a three-week Grand Tour, Dan Martin starts the Giro d'Italia on Saturday trying to further extend his limits. On November 8th last year the 34-year-old Irishman finished fourth overall in the Vuelta a España, and has a renewed confidence as a result.
Martin said last month that he believes he may be in his best ever form. However, asked on the eve of the Giro how he feels compared to his sensations heading into the 2017 Tour de France – where he placed sixth overall – he said that he will only get a true gauge of things when the racing hits the mountains.
“The way the course is, and considering the aggressive racing and the level [of the other riders], it is impossible to say. I just know that I feel really good. Training has gone perfect in the last six or seven weeks. It is a different thing feeling good in training than being good in races... the real feelings will be felt on stage four to Sestola. Then we will see how the legs are.”
Martin spearheads the Israel Start Up Nation team in the race, but insisted that he does not feel pressure, taking his usual approach of trying to control what he can but not obsess about what he cannot.
“It is only my own performance that I can control. The result will depend on how good the other guys are. If I do my best, if we [the team] have a good race, a beautiful race, then I think I will be happy.”
The list of rivals includes the 2019 Tour de France winner Egan Bernal, as well as the recent Tour of the Alps victor Simon Yates.
Martin namechecked Yates first when talking about potential rivals, then suggested that Bernal, the Belgian Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and the Spaniard Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) also merited particular attention. He noted that they have not competed recently and that this heightens unpredictability about the contenders.
Bernal became one of the youngest ever Tour de France winners when he took the 2019 Tour, but since then has struggled with back problems. Evenepoel is also on the road to recovery, having crashed heavily during last August's Il Lombardia and sustaining a fractured pelvis. The 21-year-old is a hugely talented rider, and has been likened to Eddy Merckx, cycling's greatest ever champion, but has not raced at all since his accident.
Pressure is relieved somewhat by the designated leadership of teammate João Almeida, who led for much of last year’s Giro before finishing fourth overall.
Bernal also has the advantage of Ineos Grenadiers teammate Pavel Sivakov also shouldering the burden of expectation.
Martin is one of two Irishmen in the race. He is joined on the startlist by first cousin Nicolas Roche (Team DSM), who will be riding in support of last year's runner-up, the Australian Jai Hindley.
Racing begins on Saturday with a flat prologue in Turin. The first summit finish is on stage four, but stages six, eight, nine are far tougher with more than 3,000 metres of altitude gain in each.
Stage 11 takes in technically – and mechanically – demanding gravel roads en route to Montalcino, while stage 14 to the top of the feared Monte Zoncolan will be a major test of climbing ability.
Several other mountain legs will provide opportunity for the specialists to try to build a buffer before the final time trial to Milan, including the summit finishes to Alpe di Mera and Alpe Motta on stages 19 and 20.