With two monument wins to his name, Dan Martin heads into the Ardennes as a certified favourite but don't talk about pressure and contracts, this Irishman is fully focused on performing at the highest level in the races he covets as his favourite week in the racing calendar.
The Cannondale-Garmin rider has had a relatively slow but solid build up this season, with the necessary miles accumulated in Mallorca, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya – this final race returning a worthy and impressive tenth place overall.
"The form is there and I'm feeling good. I'm following roughly the same preparation that I have for the last two years and that formula has worked pretty well in the past," Martin told Cyclingnews from his base in Girona, Spain, where he has been putting the finishing touches to his form ahead of this weekend's Amstel Gold Race.
"It took me around a week to get over Catalunya but that's done me good. I went really deep in that race and it's left me stronger and I've trained well in the last week with work on steeper climbs and some really long rides. I'm fresh mentally too, and that's really important for these races."
Unlike last year, Martin heads into the Ardennes without the Giro d'Italia on the horizon. In 2014 the Italian race formed a major target in the rider's season but a crash in the opening team time trial saw him abandon the race with a broken collarbone and his dreams of a high GC performance in tatters. This time around Martin will dial in on the Ardennes before taking a break and recalibrating ahead of the Tour de France. It is the blueprint he followed in 2013, when he was fourth in Fleche-Wallonne, won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and then won a stage of the Tour de France in Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
"Last year was a bit different because I was up in Sierra Nevada and preparing for the Giro a bit more so the form for the Ardennes was more of a by-product. This year I've done the same training rides as in 2013 but I've also overcooked myself before Amstel in the last few years, so the aim is to be a bit better there and then carry that into the other races."
"But I don't think it's a question of focus, I just love riding these races. That enjoyment makes me ride well and it's my favourite week of racing throughout the year. It's hard to say where me form is at but I was better in Catalunya than I was last year so hopefully that will transfer to the Ardennes."
The need for results
Martin's position as one of Cannondale-Garmin's leading lights took several seasons to establish but this year, with the team in a desperate search for results, his role has become an ever-more pivotal to the team's overall success.
Since the Garmin and Cannondale partnership was formed during the winter, the team have picked up just two wins: the first stage of the Criterium International thanks to Ben King and overall victory at the Circuit Sarthe with Ramunas Navardauskas. However Martin isn't duly concerned with pressure to get results. He is a a rider who averages just under three wins a season but when he tends to land on the top step it's at a highly significant event and in the last three seasons he's managed at least a top five result in the Ardennes.
"I think I'm always going to have pressure coming into this week but that's not really pressure from the team but just more personal pressure because of what I've done in these races before and because I just really want to be successful in these races," he said.
"The results haven't been great for the team as a whole this year but we're definitely starting to gel and we're getting better week after week. We've also been successful in these races before so we know we can do it again."
The next contract
While Martin concentrates on the matter of winning races, his Dutch agents are working away in in the background, laying the foundations for his next contract. At 28, and out of contract at the end of the season, the Irishman has maybe one or two major terms left at the top of the sport. With one of the most eclectic palmares in the peloton there will no doubt be a number of suitors looking to prize him away from Jonathan Vaughters' team.
"I just let my agent get on with it and I just focus on my racing. I don't try and win races in order to help my contract and if you look at my results, some of the biggest ones show that there's no correlation winning and when my contract is up. I just enjoy my racing and I know that if I do that then my contract will take care of itself," Martin said.
"And to be perfectly honest my agent has kept me out of it. After Liege is out of the way, we have a few week to sit down and look at options but I want to leave it alone and just keep my head down for these races and that's the honest truth."
Not all about results
So it is a case of eyes forward for Martin as he targets the Amstel Gold Race, Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege and looks to build upon his already impressive palmares. Of course, as soon as he arrives in Holland for the start of the Amstel Gold Race, he will be besieged by those looking to remind him about last year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege, when with the line in sight, Martin crashed on the final corner and saw his race hopes disappear.
"I've never been a results based thinker," Martin tells Cyclingnews when asked about how he assesses his career.
"It all seems surreal still that I've won Liege and won Lombardia. The thing that will make me most proud will be the good memories that I've had and continue to have. If I had to stop racing tomorrow I'd have some really fond memories with a lot of fun. Obviously, looking at the Lomardia and Liege trophies is incredible and the memories of rounding those last corners still gives me goose bumps but all the massive ups and down are also memories. Of course hitting the road in the last corner in Liege last year is another memory but we'll try and forget that one."
"I'm going to take what happened last year as a chance to try and let my character shine through. There's nothing I can do to change what happened and emotions dissipate over time. I think that's why I have this, win or lose, mentality to move on."