When Tony Martin rolls down the start ramp of the Tour de France's stage one time trial in Utrecht this summer, cycling’s top time triallist of his generation will look to continue the recent run of German success on the opening day of the race. Marcel Kittel has donned the first yellow jersey at the past two Tours, and Martin aims to match his fellow countryman on July 4.
Martin's best result in an opening Tour time trial was second in Rotterdam in 2010, and in 2012 he set the fastest time in the opening prologue in Liege at the mid-race checkpoint but then was forced to change bikes because of a mechanical problem, slumping to 45th. Up to this point in his career, when the Etixx-QuickStep rider has been asked if the Worlds Time Trial is his biggest goal of the season, it's pretty much been a rhetorical question. But this time Martin replies "maybe, but also the yellow jersey this summer in Utrecht is very important."
"I haven't seen the course yet, we have a week there before the time trial itself so there is plenty of time for that," Martin told Cyclingnews.
"But even it's technical, it'll probably be flat, it's 13 or 14 kilometres long, and all of those factors will suit me." And if he had to choose between winning the Worlds and taking yellow? "I want both," he said.
Martin will race Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday but skip Liege-Bastogne-Liege ahead of the Tour de Romandie before taking a break prior to the Dauphiné and the Tour. Martin already played an important role in team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski's victory in Amstel on Sunday, acting as a 'brake' in the Vincenzo Nibali-inspired late move. Even the Italian, though apparently unhappy that Martin did not collaborate, somewhat grudgingly recognised afterwards that the German had played his role to perfection "given that Kwiatkowski won."
The season so far has not been ideal for Martin, given that following a time trial victory in the Tour of the Algarve he has had to fight off illness in the first part of the spring and is only now beginning to regain top condition. "My first big goal was Paris-Nice, up to then my condition was good, and I knew that that after the win in Algarve. But then in the second half of Paris-Nice I got sick with the 'flu, and I couldn't go any more for GC, but even so I got fourth on the Col d'Eze which showed that my base form was good."
The Vuelta al País Vasco, traditionally one of Martin's favourite hunting grounds – he has won the final time trial three times in the last five years – did not work out this time, with the exceptionally rugged final chrono more to the liking of climbers like Joaquim Rodriguez. "You saw the race profile," was Martin's terse analysis. "So to be honest there was no chance for a guy like me.
"But I'm still in good condition and even though I've had some bad luck, the big races are still coming."
One of the 'diesel engines' of the peloton, specialising in very long seasons, Martin said that his early racing years as an amateur in Germany explain his ability to stay consistent throughout the year.
"I learned this as a young rider, when the seasons started in November and ended in October, for me it's not like I want to have two months off in the middle of the year to get back to top shape. For sure you have to have certain breaks, but it's not like for me the season finishes in July and then I go on holiday. Also I need those goals throughout the season to keep me motivated and training, so I always want to be fighting, whether i's February or July."
With such workaholic traits in his character, it's probably no surprise that Martin said he will start thinking about the Worlds "straight after the Tour. July is the goal up until then and then after Paris I'll take a break [but] the Worlds will already be in my head."
One change, though, is that Martin will probably avoid the Vuelta a España, his build-up race for the Worlds since his first rainbow jersey in 2011. "Probably I'll do the Canadian WorldTour races, and some smaller races in Europe. The trouble is the Vuelta is getting harder, hotter, steeper – whatever – every year and maybe it's not the best preparation to be really fit on one day, so I try to do it another way next year."
If Martin's spring has been a little more muted than he'd have liked, German cycling has shone brightly thanks in large part to John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) this spring in the Classics. Martin said he had divided loyalties between his own team and a longstanding friend when it came to watching his Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix wins on television.
"You have two hearts. Degenkolb is a good friend of mine, we were together in training school and we also meet up in our free time. So I was super happy when he won, and it's also very important for German cycling. As long as Etixx-Quick Step riders still do a very good job, which they did, that's really good too, and I'm going to want a Quick Step rider to win next year, that's for sure. For me this year, though, [when it came to supporting one team] it was really hard to decide.
"In any case, Paris-Roubaix was a great race to watch this year, a really good story, so it was fun to watch it sitting on my sofa and be a normal fan. It was a good day for me."
As for the Ardennes, where Martin is racing, the German, talking on Saturday to Cyclingnews, foresaw his own role in Amstel when he said "maybe I'll try to get in a break late on so we don't have to ride. But the first goal is to be there for Kwiatkowski."
Talking of breakaways, Martin is realistic about his chances of repeating his successful lone bid for glory on the road to Mulhouse at last year's Tour. "Sure it'd be great, but to be honest, it's the kind of day you have once or twice in your life, when you have diamonds in your legs and everything falls into place. It wasn't easy to do last year, but now, with everybody knowing I can stay away like that, it'll be even harder. I'll look for my chance."
A crack at the Hour Record is still on his radar. "I don't think it will happen this year, because you need a lot of time to prepare for it and it's not the big goal for now. But it'll be a target, that's for sure, and it's nice to see now what Bradley [Wiggins] is doing. For sure he'll set the time to beat. Considering how he prepares so well for the races where he wants to do well, the question is more whether he sets such a good time it'll be [realistically] possible to beat it."
He still has a lingering hope that Wiggins will return to defend his title in the World Time Trial Championships next September in Richmond and set up a 'revenge match' after losing his title in Ponferrada last autumn.
"It would be a better race with him there, a really good fight. There are other guys too who can do very well, so it's not that it's boring without him, but with him there it would be a good battle."