2017 was going to be an important year regardless for Tony Martin with the Tour de France grand depart in Dusseldorf a rare opportunity for the time trialist to compete in the race on home soil. However, there is added significance to next year's race as the 31-year-old will line up for the stage 1 time trial in the rainbow jersey as world time trial champion.
At the team's recent training camp in Calpe, Spain, Martin explained his decision to move on from Etixx-QuickStep after five seasons and the German attraction of Katusha-Alpecin.
"First of all, I was at a point in my career after nine years as a professional and five years with Etixx that I want and I need to change something- [get] some different people around me, some new inputs, because I'm human," Martin said of the move. "I think everyone knows the situation if you have every year, week, month the same things to do, you have less concentration, less motivation. Sometimes it feels like standing still. Then for sure also the success was not that big last year, so I said I need to change something. It doesn't mean Etixx wasn't a good team for me, it was a perfect team for me, but I needed to change something to get new inputs and new motivation. I chose to go for another team.
"Pretty soon we had some good talks with Katusha, and they explained their international project and the way they wanted to go in the future. And also the partners, they want to work with Alpecin. It feels like half a German team. With Canyon, it's also a brand I was looking to and I think they do a really good job and can also be a good partner for me in the future. Those were all reasons why I said yes, I want to try this project. If it's a right or wrong way you can change after one or two years. At the moment it feels right and I'm really happy to be part of this team."
In 2016, Martin placed greater emphasis on the cobbled classics than any previous year. His 2015 Tour stage win into Cambrai over the pave that saw Martin take the yellow jersey, suggested his potential in the cobbled classics and led to his appearance at Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
"For me it's another type of bike race," Martin said of Flanders, who added his race programme for 2017 will largely mirror his 2016 season. "The strategy is totally different. In the Tour de France you say OK, it's a stage where the final climb will decide, or where a break will go and the first kilometers are most important. But the Classics, you have so many important points to be in front or not to be in front to save energy. Sometimes the most important situation might be in the middle of the race with 100km to go where you wouldn't expect it. These are things you have to learn, you have to get some experience. I'm really thankful to Etixx Quickstep that I could take these important lessons with them. I was riding with Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar, they learned (sic) me so many important things that will for sure help me in the future."
Martin isn't the only multiple world time trial champion to turn his attention to the classics with Fabian Cancellara the prime and most successful example. Martin though isn't looking to follow in the footsteps of the now retired seven-time monument winner.
"That's a big expectation. Fabian Cancellara is an icon in the Classics and I'm at a starting point," said Martin, who won't be targeting Milan-San Remo. "I want to go my own way. I want to get better. I see for sure my chances to win a big race, but I don't want to put the pressure too high. I'm still in a learning period. And we will see how it goes. For sure I want to be successful, otherwise I wouldn't try this.
"The one thing that is missing from my career is a big one-day race."
Renewed time trial focus
In October, Martin helped Etixx-QuickStep to a third Worlds team time trial title before claiming a fourth individual rainbow jersey after several years of tweaking and adjusting his position. Martin explained that after a tough season, finishing the season with gold in Doha soothed his doubts and boosted his morale.
"It gave me a lot of morale and self-confidence to go to Katusha. It's always hard to come to a new team after a disappointing year, you don't know where you stand and don't know what to expect and what the new team is thinking about you," he said. "Two gold medals made my life so much easier. I can feel that everyone is really happy to have a world champion in the team. It's good for my morale and motivation for winter training and the first races. It's a good feeling. For the first time trials, it will give me confidence. It also leads me back to my old strategy in time trials. I know how to go fast in the TT. I lost my way a bit during this year, and now I am back on."
Martin's first race in the rainbow stripes next year is likely to be the Volta ao Algarve where he has won the time trial stage on three occasions. However, he is expecting a period of adjustment before finding the best set up on his new Canyon bike.
"First of all, I will do Tour of Algarve, it's always a super nice race. I've been there a lot of times, and I really like this race. If I can go for the victory for sure it's the always the plan. But it's the beginning of December, and I have to come through the winter with no injuries or situations. It's not predictable how I can come out of the winter, but it's the goal to be in good condition at the start of Algarve... I will start with Valencia and Algarve, and then I will be in Kuurne and Het Volk (Omloop het Nieuwsblad) and Paris-Nice.
"As I said it's a new situation, a new TT bike. I don't expect I'll be 100% in the first time trials, but I'm sure I can come fast to 100% in the first half of the year. I wouldn't expect in Valencia and Algarve that I will be 100%," he explained. "It's always hard to get on a new bike and to get used to everything. It's always a difficult situation, but my morale is at the top for sure."
The main time trial focus for Martin in 2017 will be stage 1 of the Tour with the added importance of the race starting on German soil and the addition of German company Alpecin as a co-naming rights sponsor from next year.
"It's a highlight for me for the year, for sure. It's not often the Tour starts in Germany, and also it's not even a prologue, it's a short time trial," said Martin who was second to Rohan Dennis in the 2015 stage 1 time trial. "I don't want to put the pressure on myself - there's also Tom Dumoulin who will be strong and very motivated for this day. After the Classics I will be focused 100 percent on this day. With Alpecin being a German sponsor it's even more important, and I know this so I will be prepared the best I way can."
Along with John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel, Martin has been instrumental in regaining trust and interest from the German public after the broadcasters chose to end its broadcast of the Tour de France. German success at the Tour in recent years has seen German sponsors step back into the sport while the Dusseldorf grand depart also marks a return to the halcyon days but Martin is aware more can be done to ensure long-term success and investment.
"I've been fighting nine years for German cycling, I did a good job, like Marcel, John and Andre. We are one of the reasons why a German sponsor made the step back to cycling. So I think the job is not done, but a big part of it (is). For sure the pressure to be with the German sponsor on the jersey in Germany on the Tour de France is a lot, but my hard work will be to put the pressure away again," he said. "With too much pressure you can't perform. I want to win, I want to have the yellow there, but it's not for sure, and if I get second or third, life won't be finished. I can promise I will give my best and prepare the best way, and I can't do any more."
While Martin, Kittel, and Andre Greipel are regular Tour stage winners, what Germany needs to ensure a 'healed' relationship with cycling is a genuine GC contender as he explained.
"It's healed in the way that cycling is accepted as a real sport again. It's not that Germans fear cycling and think about doping. This time is maybe 90 percent over. We have to respect back from the people, from the fans, what we maybe still miss, but that's for me more a pity that we don't have a yellow jersey contender for the Tour de France cycling lives for the yellow jersey in the Tour de France and I don't see this person right now in German cycling," he said. "You always need these big icons to make a sport really on the top. Next year we will make a good job, we will win stages and classics, and people see this and are willing again to trust us and to follow the sport."