Three out of five ain’t bad. Tony Martin’s arrival at Etixx-QuickStep in 2012 coincided neatly the reintroduction of the team time trial to the UCI Road World Championships, and the German duly signed off on his fifth and final campaign at the squad in Doha on Sunday by helping them to a third victory in the event.
Winners in Valkenburg in 2012 and Florence in 2013, Etixx-QuickStep surrendered their crown to BMC in 2014 and were unable to wrest it back again in Richmond a year ago. From the outset, this had the feel of a two-horse race, and so it proved. Martin et al were three seconds ahead at the first time check, but slipped a fraction of a second behind BMC at the 26.4km mark, before definitively pushing ahead in the final 14 kilometres to win by 12 seconds.
"It’s a really emotional victory for me. It was the last race for the team, and it’s become a family in the last five years, with some great victories and great moments," said Martin, who will ride for Katusha in 2017. "It’s a dream that came through. It was the perfect final for me, the perfect moment to leave the team with a fantastic memory."
Martin’s 2016 season saw him branch into a new direction as part of Etixx-QuickStep’s cobbled classics unit in the spring, but in other respects it was a trying year. His first victory did not arrive until the German time trial championship in June, he abandoned the Tour de France on the final stage in Paris and he was a disappointing 12th in the time trial at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
At that juncture, with his transfer to Katusha already confirmed, Martin might well have been tempted simply to run down the clock on his time at Etixx-QuickStep and start again in 2017, but time trial victory at the Tour of Britain last month suggested that there was life in his campaign yet. Doha offered a chance to put a different complexion on the year.
"I tried to prepare myself already in Europe for the heat here, so I was training on rollers in a heated room," Martin explained. "Maybe these are just small percentages, but we have to fight for the margins that we can, and that gave me a small indication of what to expect in Qatar, though I’ve never had particular problems with the heat."
There seems a direct correlation between Martin’s arrival and Etixx-QuickStep’s pre-eminence as a team time trialling unit, but the German pointed to the importance of Niki Terpstra, the only other rider to have lined out for the squad in each of the five Worlds team time trials to date.
"It’s a third world title with Niki, and he’s always been one of the big engines on the team," Martin said. "Without him, for sure the three titles would not have been possible, and I think he would probably say the same about me, so it’s a really special relationship. And we knew today that a big era was coming to an end.”
Etixx-QuickStep crossed the line with the minimum of four riders, having lost Yves Lampaert and Julien Vermote in the finale, but Martin, Terpstra, Bob Jungels and Marcel Kittel had sufficient firepower to outlast BMC and reclaim the world title.
"For me, to be honest, Niki was really the biggest engine today, but it was a very harmonic ride from the team. Nobody wanted to show that he was the strongest, and nobody wanted to skip turns so he could save energy and look better in the final," Martin said. "It was super harmonic, and Marcel was so strong in the final kilometre. There was no weak point in the team."
Individual time trial
Martin will hope that Sunday’s victory augurs well for his hopes of claiming a fourth world title in the individual time trial. As in the team time trial, his sequence of victories in the event was interrupted in Ponferrada two years ago, but, as ever, the German will be among the favourites when the elite men take the start ramp on Wednesday afternoon.
Sunday offered riders a chance to sample the 40-kilometre course in a competitive setting, and while the winning average speed of 56.418kph was a confirmation – as if it were needed – that on this flat, fast course, the winner ought to be decided by pure power, Martin stressed that team time trial form does not necessarily carry across to the individual event.
"It’s really hard to say from this how the condition for the individual time trial. In the team time trial, it’s more of a sprint race: you do some 30-second efforts, you take a bit of a rest and then you accelerate again. It’s not really the same," Martin said.
"I felt really good, and much more importantly for me, I got some knowledge of what strategy I should use for the individual time trial on Saturday. It was a good experience for me and I learned a lot."
Martin was coy, however, when asked precisely what he had learned from Sunday’s team time trial. "I’ll tell you on Wednesday evening," he smiled.