Tour de France: Irish contenders ready to move up a gear

Dan Martin and Sam Bennett start world’s most famous cycle race with big targets in mind

 

There were two moments in the recent Critérium du Dauphiné which hinted at a new level of performance for Dan Martin. Towards the close of stage six of the Tour warm-up event, he hit the jets on the uphill finish to Méribel, kicking hard inside the final kilometre in search of the time bonus on offer.

Two riders – the Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) – had attacked earlier and scrapped it out for the stage win between them. Martin was chasing the bonus for third and when he went, some of the biggest names in the sport could do little about it.

Martin dropped former Tour de France winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), plus Australia’s Richie Porte (BMC Racing Team). He then gapped defending Tour champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) closer to the line, putting three seconds into the surprised Briton.

The following day Martin reaffirmed that flair on the concluding stage to Superdévoluy. A superb long-distance move by the Briton Steve Cummings put the day’s win out of reach, but Martin unleashed a ferocious 400-metre uphill sprint for second place.

Froome, Contador and Porte were all left behind once again. The authoritative display underlined the point he made on the day before: namely, when it came to final-kilometre accelerations, Martin was now beating the world’s best riders.

Equally importantly, the time bonus for second also moved him above Porte in the overall standings and onto the podium. It was a historically significant result.

“Somebody told me after the race that I was the first Irishman to be on the podium at the Dauphine,” he told The Irish Times. “That is something pretty special as there are not many firsts left in cycling for Irishmen.

Every race

“Between Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche they have pretty much won every race on the calendar. So it is a nice feeling to get on the podium in such an event.”

Scooping such a result shows how Martin’s career is progressing. He’s clocked up big victories in the past; consider, for example, his 2013 Volta a Catalunya win or his Liège-Bastogne-Liège Classic success from the same year. He’s also got stage wins in the Tour de France and Vuelta a España to his credit (in 2013 and 2011 respectively) plus the 2014 Il Lombardia Classic.

But dropping the world’s best riders in the weeks before the Tour de France is something new, and shows that he is exactly where he needs to be at this point in time.

In charting how he has made the next step, Martin points to several factors. A big one is his move to Andorra from Girona last year. He’s living at higher altitude and, importantly, training in the high mountains a lot more often.

He’s also changed teams after an eight-year stint with the Cannondale outfit, getting a fresh start with the Etixx-QuickStep team. That’s brought a new atmosphere, plus a different approach from the staff, and new equipment.

“The Vuelta last year was where I first started to feel the effects of living in Andorra and training a lot more in the mountains,” he explained.

“It showed me that I can climb with the best guys in the right conditions. I then continued improving over the winter and saw again in Catalunya [where he won a stage and finished third overall] that my climbing had improved a lot.

“As regards the team, the atmosphere is great. They have a 100 per cent belief in me. There is such a great feeling racing with these boys. I think the amount of success this team has had in the past just breeds the confidence that brings even more success.

“The bike as well . . . everything is just perfect for me. Maybe it is the change in saddle – maybe it has made my position better or something, I don’t know. But I just feel really relaxed and really solid on the bike. I am very happy.”

Inflammation

There are also nutritional tweaks too that he feels have had an effect. “I have changed a few things in my diet as well that I found was a little bit intolerant too. That lowers inflammation, and I am basically about two kilos lighter than I was this time last year. That also helps, of course.”

All things considered, Martin appears physically stronger and also mentally more confident. Because of that, he is more willing to name a general classification goal than in years past.

“I think the top 10 is very realistic now, looking at how I am climbing,” he said. “But that still involves getting to the finish in one piece and healthy. I think as long as I can get through the race, well then it is possible. We have a really strong team to be able to do that.

“The first aim will be a stage victory again as that is what this team is all about.”

Sam Bennett will be the other Irishman in the race and he too is chasing a stage win.

The Carrick-on-Suir rider made his debut last year and was hampered by illness in the run-up to the event. He then came down with further sickness in the race.

Urinating blood due to a kidney infection was the final straw and he withdrew, exhausted, with four days to go.

He was demoralised yet bounced back two weeks later to win a stage at the Arctic Race of Norway.

Bennett worked hard over the winter in order to build on that and while he has just one victory to his credit this season, that is simply a question of bunch position rather than brute power.

Once his leadout riders get him to where he needs to be before the sprint starts, he’ll be in the mix.

The Critérium du Dauphiné reinforced that for him.

“I was top 10 any day there was a sprint,” he explains. “I was disappointed with the first day, taking third rather than winning. I put out good power but had to go early because of the way things worked out. It ended up giving Nacer Bouhanni the perfect leadout.

Opened up

“Still, I went just before 300 metres to go and it was only in the last 50 or 20 metres that I died and he got past. I was happy with that, especially as I had been in the wind a lot before the sprint opened up.”

For Bennett, the overall picture is good. Twelve months ago he went into the race with shaky form due to illness. This time around, he’s knows he’s in a better place.

“I am so far ahead of last year that it is ridiculous,” he says. “Even looking at my training files and the fitness levels and everything, it is way, way better. It is a case of trying to make it happen now.”

One year after a tough debut, he has a respect for how hard the Tour is. As a result, he says that he is taking nothing for granted. However, don’t be surprised if he’s in the mix in the bunch sprints, particularly if his team can finally get the leadout dialled in.

“I think nobody suspects me,” he states. “If you look at any articles about the Tour, nobody has mentioned me. I am out of the limelight and that will probably play to my favour.

“People probably think I don’t have it . . . hopefully they will be surprised.”

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