New team, fresh start, has Dan Martin shooting for the stages
Irish cyclist looking forward to hitting the road with new team-mate Chris Froome
Dan Martin in action during stage two of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana between Torrent and Cullera. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
Dan Martin was somewhere at the end of the lockdown when he got a call from Chris Froome. Even in the seclusion of Andorra, the peloton silent for now, he’d heard the rumours, and Froome soon confirmed.
“What can you tell me about Israel Start-Up Nation?” Froome asked, knowing Martin was one of their first big-name signings towards the end of last season, when the team was considered one of the youngest, smallest and seemingly limited in professional cycling. Well, not anymore.
On July 9th, Team Ineos, formerly Team Sky, announced they wouldn’t be extending the contract of their seven-time Grand Tour winner beyond 2020; later that day, Israel Start-Up Nation confirmed the signing of the 35-year-old Froome on an “open-ended” deal that will likely see out his career.
With that a lot people in the business were asking about Israel Start-Up Nation: who exactly they were, how they could afford Froome, the British rider on an estimated €5 million a year, winner of four editions of the Tour de France, plus the Giro d’Italia once, and the Vuelta a España twice?
“Yeah, Chris called me before he signed,” says Martin, speaking from his home in Andorra as the 2020 season gets set to resume for real. “I’ve known Chris a good while, obviously as competitors, and we have a pretty good relationship off the bike.
“It was really just getting to know what the team was about. And how is it, basically. Last year, a few people were questioning why I was going to such a small team, now it doesn’t look so small. I knew this team had ambition, a great atmosphere, and a philosophy that was going to take it to the top. I didn’t think Chris would ever come here when I joined, but definitely looking forward to it, the whole team is going to step up a bit more next year.”
For Martin, who turns 34 next month, the decision to join the team last August, then known as the Israel Cycling Academy and still without UCI World Tour license, did cause some mild surprise. Founded in late 2014 as a joint venture between Israeli businessman Ron Baron and Israeli cyclist Ran Margaliot, with the main aim of promoting the still fledgling sport in the country, ambitions grew significantly with the backing and co-ownership of Canadian-Israeli real estate billionaire Sylvan Adams, who also foot the bill for bringing the somewhat contentious start of the 2018 Giro to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
With Adams making his cycling ambitions clear, the team completed the takeover of Katusha-Alpecin last October, including its UCI World Tour license, changing its name to Israel Start-Up Nation in the process, and now poised for its Tour de France debut at the end of August.
Martin’s enthusiasm for the team is palpable. After two seasons with UAE-Team Emirates, and despite his eighth-place overall and stage six win in the 2018 Tour de France, something had gone astray. Now, he reckons the move has injected him with the same sort of enthusiasm as when he first joined the professional ranks with US-based Slipstream-Chipotle back in 2008
“I just needed a change. I’d gone on this adventure, with UAE, helped them get to a certain level, and it’s one of the biggest teams in the world now. So it was special to be part of that, from the start. But being on a big team, there’s some pressure as well.
“When I first spoke with Israel Start-Up, it was a very different environment, and did remind me of when I first turned pro, back in 2008. That family atmosphere, and that strive to get better, and just to enjoy riding your bike. And I definitely got that back. If you’re enjoying yourself you’re more likely to get results.
“The chance to work Paulo Saldanha, the team performance director, his belief in me, that my potential has never been fully tapped. And the whole team’s potential, to explore the upper limits of your ability, that’s what drew me to this team, and I’m so happy here, it’s been a great move. And just looking forward to put that work to use. I think people have seen how the team has progressed, from very small, to getting into the tour this year, and immediately a good fit for me.”
Indeed 2020 started brightly, Martin finishing fourth overall in the Volta a la Valenciana, before the world went into lockdown. Being trapped at home in Andorra with his wife Jess, and their then 18-month old twin daughters, brought several mixed blessings.
“I’d actually been building up a bit of steam, the first few races went very well, in Valencia, and Algarve, got quite close to winning. I was actually in a four-week training block, when the lockdown started, and I’ll be honest, I was absolutely flying, probably the best conditioning in three or four years. I’d worked really hard over the winter with my new coach, Paulo, and feeling really, really good.
“Then suddenly everything gets cancelled. Of course it feels like a hit, Andorra is a quite small community, but we’re very fortunate to have a nice house, with a nice garden. Because it was very, very strict here. You couldn’t even step outside your front door. Only one person at a time could go the supermarket, and we also went for delivery quite a bit, so there were a couple of weeks here when no one actually left the property.
“I think being an elite athlete helped, knowing to put some structure to the day. Jess would run on the treadmill for an hour or so, then I’d do my few hours. Then spend time with the twins. When the lockdown started, they were 18 months, so I got to spend a lot more time with time, time I would have missed if I was away racing. So I could see them progress and develop, which was a blessing, really.
“But I’ve put a lot of hard work in, over those months, and really want to get racing now. When I first joined this team, one of the things we outlined were the gaps in my training, that I’ve been missing these last few years. This pause in racing really gave us the chance to focus on that. Paulo is less into the endurance, and more into the intensity, the most time I spent on the bike was 12 or 13 hours a week, it was mostly the specific, high-intensity work. And I really enjoyed it, it was very engaging, and the time just went.
“The past few years, I relied on my natural explosiveness, and maybe I wasn’t as punchy as I used to be. So I’ve gone back to work on those qualities, which made me a winner of bike races, not just a Grant Tour rider.”
The focus of the restarted season will still be the Tour de France, now to begin on August 29th, Covid-19 pending. Martin and his team got a reminder how quickly things might change when Omer Goldstein, one of their Israeli riders, tested positive earlier this week, and was placed into immediate quarantine. What’s the risk for the 22 teams on a three-week Tour around France?
“You’re asking the wrong person that question. About one day before the full lockdown I told my wife that no way we’re going into full lockdown. So you just can’t say, you can only focus as if it will happen. You can’t stop people from walking out their front door to watch the Tour go past. That’s the difficulty. There’s some evidence the virus doesn’t spread as easily outdoors. There’s still a lot we don’t understand, and that’s the scary thing. But we just have to trust the precautions that are there.”
Assuming the Tour does get underway, Martin’s eighth, he admits the tactics will be different. He came closest to the podium in 2017, finishing sixth, riding the last few stages with a broken bone in his back. Only this time it’s about seeking a hat-trick of stage wins, to go with 2013 and 2018.
“I think I could have been podium in 2017, potentially, but having the ability to be on the podium is only one part of it. You need the full back-up, support, some fortune, but no regrets, things happen for a reason. Last year [when he finished 18th] there were a few different things going on. I was actually very good for the first 10 days, then the wheels fell off. And when the results aren’t there, there is always stress and tension. I’m not one to look back, but I am in a happier place now.
“We’re planning to approach the Tour slightly differently this year, just because of the way the season is set up. The plan is to step away from the general classification fight, and try for stage wins. That would be absolutely great for the team, and the fact the team are encouraging me to shoot for stages now, I’m looking forward to that approach.
“I’ve realised too I just love riding my bike, still. And really enjoy the training. That’s why I realised I’m not ready to retire yet. Last year, being away so much, and not enjoying the racing, I thought maybe I’m just getting tired of this. But these last few months have told me I haven’t lost my love for the sport.
“I’m 34 this year, so definitely closer to the end than I am the start. I’ve already achieved more than I ever imagined. But there are still things I can achieve, because I’ve definitely been training better than before. It’s easy to say that, when you don’t really know, but I know I’m feeling very, very good, my confidence, and excited to see where I am at.”
That still spills over into riding for Ireland too. Martin was searching for the best way to get from Paris to Tokyo to ride in the Olympics when the lockdown started, and that journey is now postponed for another year. There is however a very tempting World Championship course in Switzerland at the end of September.
“Normally, after the Tour, you go on holiday. Not this year, the season really only starts in Paris, then the Worlds, and most of the Classics, so there are a lot more opportunities after the Tour. I think the Worlds this year is a massive opportunity, maybe one of my last chances to win, which is another reason not to ride GC in the Tour. Keep something back, and try to be world champion. It’s a course that should suit me, so why not? Someone has got to win.
“It’s also an incredibly tough Tour this year, one of the hardest Grand Tours, potentially, just looking at the number of metres climbed. It’s case a waiting to see how the race unfolds. I’ve won stages on different terrain, but there might be a dozen stages that potentially I could win.
“Of course a stage win is still the pinnacle of our sport, an incredible moment, and I’d love to complete the hat-trick. I also have this craving to get back to the Giro, try for a stage win there, to go with Vuelta too. Complete the set.”