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A look at the school, the races and the future of this unique 'sport'
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Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp)
Irishman makes 2014 debut as he builds towards Ardennes and Giro
In an era where classics riders and grand tour specialists alike now flock to warmer climes to race in January and February, Dan Martin's race programme seems like something of a throwback. Some seven weeks after some of his Giro d'Italia rivals lined up at the Tour Down Under and Tour de San Luis, the Garmin-Sharp rider finally gets his season underway at Tirreno-Adriatico on Wednesday. He politely disagrees, however, with the consensus that his is a particularly late start to the campaign.
"Everybody keeps saying that, but I think it's just that everybody else has started so early," Martin told Cyclingnews, pointing out that, in any case, he had only one day of racing in his legs at the same point last year, as a result of Garmin-Sharp's withdrawal from the Tour of the Mediterranean following the theft of the team's bikes.
"With the bikes being stolen last year, I only did one day at the Tour of the Med so there's not a big difference. And last year I ended up getting sick afterwards, too, so I was eight days off the bike. This year I've probably had a better run-in to the race."
Martin's winter was a quiet one, with three unbroken months at his Girona home, and only one setback, when he was briefly laid low by a virus. "I was still riding but I couldn't train hard for a week or so," he said. "But I'm feeling good now." Given that it is his first race of the campaign, however, Martin is unsure of what to expect at Tirreno-Adriatico. His primary brief in Italy is to help Andrew Talansky in his bid for overall honours, and he enters the race with no specific personal targets.
"It's an unknown as to what my form is, especially seeing as everyone else has already raced, but my goals are later in the year," said Martin. "I'm here to give Andrew a hand, he's really motivated for this race. It'll be interesting to see how he goes and it’s nice for me to go into a race without much pressure or even personal expectation – it’s really a wait and see kind of attitude."
The summit finish at the Selvarotonda on Saturday and the short, steep haul to the Muro di Guardiagrele the following day are two stages that should suit a rider of Martin's characteristics, but he admitted that he had yet to look at the parcours in any great detail. "But Tirreno follows a typical profile every year: It's a nice race with something for everybody, and that’s why there are so many good riders here," he said.
Along with the Volta a Catalunya, Tirreno-Adriatico is one of just two races on Martin's schedule before he lines up for the Ardennes classics in late April, a programme that served him well last year when he claimed victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. With the Giro d'Italia also on the horizon, however, he doesn't plan to be quite as strong in Catalonia as he was when he won the race overall last season.
"Still, I'm never going to turn down results; if my form is good, I'll go out there to win, and in the modern day of cycling, you can't really predict your form as much," Martin said. "It's always an important race for me, living in Catalonia, but it's true that my sights are set on the Giro so that could mean that my form's not as good there this year, and I won't be worried if that’s the case."
Martin was poised for a place in the top ten of last year's Tour de France only to fall ill deep in the final week and slip to 33rd overall by Paris. He had spent much of the race downplaying his general classification chances, insisting that he was treating the Tour as though it were made up of 21 one-day races.
Although Martin is more explicit about his overall hopes for this year's Giro d'Italia, he stressed that the basic philosophy remains the same. As his fellow countryman, the footballer turned pundit Johnny Giles is wont to say, he will take each day on its merits. The big picture of a high finish in Trieste is the overriding goal, but Martin will be loath to pass up on the chance to eke out a stage win along the way.
"I still haven't had a good result in the general classification in a Grand Tour, it's something that’s missing and I'm definitely thinking about that," he said. "But a lot can happen in 21 days and I think you do have to take it day by day: if you think too much about the end goal, you miss out on opportunities along the way. I'll be hoping to have the legs to race aggressively."
Martin's best finish in a Grand Tour was his 13th place at the 2011 Vuelta, and he has never managed to make it all the way through the three weeks of a major stage race without suffering from illness along the way. "The initial goal will be to spend three weeks on the road without getting sick and if I can manage that and stay out of trouble for three weeks, then I think I should be near the front of the GC," he said.
Although his perennial struggles with allergies hampered his performance at his only previous Giro appearance in 2010, Martin is optimistic that he now has those problems under control and is keen to return to what he feels is the grand tour that best suits his characteristics, all the more so because of the Irish start.
"I was in Dublin recently and I had a bit of a wander on the finish line where that stage 3 will be," he said. "That was the first time I realised it was really going to happen: I got goose bumps standing there and it was quite strange, but it’s not going to hit home properly until we're on the start line in Belfast."