Daniel Martin's dream of a Tour de France start has finally come to fruition, but a hard crash at the Criterium du Dauphiné early this month came close to derailing the Garmin-Sharp rider's Grand Boucle ambitions for yet another year. While the two weeks between the Dauphiné and the Tour start in Liege, Belgium largely spent regaining full mobility and strength in his damaged shoulder was not how Martin expected to approach his first Tour, Martin "always tries to find the positives" and gained a healthy boost of confidence that he's not only physically, but mentally ready for the ensuing challenge of the sport's grandest race.
"Due to the crash, it's been a lot more stressful two weeks after the Dauphiné than I would have liked," Martin told Cyclingnews from his hotel in Belgium. "It would have been nice to spend some time off the bike. I never took a break from training because of the crash. I was always on the bike and trying to regain full mobility, full movement and strength back to my shoulder, which I somehow managed to do.
"Instead of spending my time recovering and relaxing in Girona, I ended up spending a lot of time on the physio table. Obviously that wasn't perfect but it's made me so much stronger mentally and so much more determined.
"[At the Dauphiné] when I was riding to the finish line, I was already thinking of the Vuelta. 'It's not so bad, I can spend July on the beach' I thought. I was already trying to make a positive out of my broken shoulder. When we got the X-rays that showed it was just a bit of bruising then the realisation came that now I have to get on the bike the next day and try to finish.
"It was a really hard week, but I was really proud that I finished because it was probably the most difficult few days I've had on a bike. I was in such a lot of pain and I couldn't get out of the saddle. But I knew that the Tour de France was on the horizon and I knew I needed those racing kilometres."
Garmin-Sharp enters the Tour de France still on a high from Ryder Hesjedal's Giro d'Italia victory in May, and returns to a race where the previous year they won the team time trial, earned three individual stage victories, spent a stint in the yellow jersey plus won the team classification. Martin, however, contends that rather than creating additional pressure, their palmares contributes to a state of calm.
"Everyone's quite relaxed. It's quite a mature team here, everyone's been here before apart from myself, everyone has a lot of experience," said Martin. "With our success in the Giro this year we've got a lot less to prove and people are looking at us as a real force now and there's that confidence. We've got three guys here who've finished in the top-10 with Tom [Danielson], Christian [Vande Velde] and Ryder [Hesjedal]. We're definitely coming here with a lot of respect. We've got a lot of horsepower on the team this year and to be chosen as part of that it shows how much confidence the team's got in me."
Martin already has three Grand Tour finishes under his belt, one Giro and two Vueltas, with last year's Vuelta his best performance highlighted by one stage win in the mountains and a 13th place on the final general classification. This season Martin's spring-time allergies were kept in check resulting in a fourth place overall result at the Vuelta a Catalunya plus a pair of solid results in the Ardennes Classics - sixth at Fleche Wallonne followed by fifth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Still, Martin realises the Tour de France is a race like no other.
"It's my first Tour and I'm coming here giving the race a lot of respect - I'm here to learn," said Martin. "I've got a lot of guys with experience here and a lot of guys who've raced for GC before so I'm definitely coming here firstly to help those guys in the mountains. If I am strong enough to be able to go for a stage win then that would be fantastic but the GC is not really on my mind at all. Not only the amount of time trial kilometres, but the fact it's my first time in this race and I have three teammates who are better suited to the parcours this year."
The mountains classification, however, provides an appealing ambition for a talented climber who harbours no general classification ambitions but Martin is taking a wait-and-see approach regarding the polka-dot jersey.
"The mountains jersey is something that's a possibility considering my characteristics - the sprint I've got at the top of a hill could be useful in gathering points - but I think that's also a jersey that just happens," said Martin. "You see how the race unfolds after a week or 10 days or so. You start to see more and more if it's an achievable goal then you make it a target, kind of like the team prize as well."
Martin is the only Tour de France neophyte on the Garmin-Sharp roster and the Irishman is eager for finally gaining his own experience in the Grand Boucle.
"I'm not really sure what to expect," said Martin. "I don't think anyone can really tell you - when you're at the race you find out what it's all about. It's mainly the fact that there's 200 bike riders here all at their peak of fitness and everybody's desperate to achieve something. People often say it's an achievement just to be in a breakaway at the Tour de France.
"The level's higher here than any other race of the year and there's the pressure and nervousness as well. There's the number of fans on the side of the road, the big circus surrounding the bike race and I think it's really important not to be distracted by that. But obviously in my first year it's all new and that can prove really difficult not to be distracted.
"I think that's where it helps with all this experience around me, level-headed guys who are always ready to give me advice. I've finished three Grand Tours which gives me confidence on a physical level but it's the psychological stress of three weeks of intense pressure - the media pressure and fan pressure - that is the most daunting part, I think."