Dan Martin is never afraid to attack and take a risk to try to win races. And he showed the same determination and conviction when he decided to join UAE Team Emirates for 2018 with a role as leader for the Tour de France rather than an equally well-paid but less-pressured role at Team Sky.
The Irishman turned 31 last August and could have opted for the more comfortable option and signed up with the British squad as a replacement for Mikel Landa and the role of understudy to Chris Froome in July. However, after his sixth and ninth places in the last two editions of the Tour de France, he is convinced overall victory at the Tour de France is within his reach.
"I always said I wouldn't wholly focus on the Tour de France but that's not the case anymore," Martin tells Cyclingnews in his first major interview since swapping the dark blue of Quick-Step Floors for the green, white and black of UAE Team Emirates for 2018.
"Of course I'm going to target the Ardennes Classics too this spring but I'd regret it massively if I ended my career without going all out for the Tour.
"I'd love to get through the 2018 Tour de France healthily and without crashing, to see what I can really do. I'd love to start the race knowing I've got the best team there to support me and everything in place. It was great riding for Quick-Step Floors but I've got a new level of belief in my ability and I need to understand how far it will take me."
Martin suffered during the 2017 Tour de France after crashing with Richie Porte (BMC) on stage 9. He was able to race on but struggled even to stand up after the stage and was diagnosed with two fractured vertebrae after finishing sixth overall, 4:42 down on Chris Froome, but only 2:22 down on third-placed Roman Bardet.
Martin also finished third at Paris-Nice, sixth at the Volta a Catalunya, second at both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and second at the Criterium du Dauphine.
He is convinced he could have finished on the podium in Paris had he not crashed and lost 1:15 to his biggest rivals.
"I honestly didn't realise it was broken at the time. I felt like I had a really bad muscle spasm. It's a great story but looking back at my 2017 season, the one thing missing were victories," he says.
"I've got this incredible consistency, I was at the front of every big race I did, but with only one victory [at the Volta ao Algarve in February - ed.] It would have nice if the placings had been big wins. I know I've got to keep knocking. I think things will drop into place and the wins will come. I still enjoy my riding and my racing so if I keep doing that, then we'll get the results."
A pivotal moment for Martin and UAE Team Emirates
Martin and UAE Team Emirates are sharing a pivotal moment in their respective careers. Martin is focused on the Tour de France and UAE Team Emirates is also aiming high. After years as Lampre, a team with very Italian DNA, the team has stepped up massively for 2018, signing Martin, Fabio Aru and Alexander Kristoff, while retaining the services of Diego Ulissi, Rui Costa, Darwin Atapuma and a talented group of young Italian riders that includes Edward Ravasi, Valerio Conti and former world pursuit champion Filippo Ganna.
Kristoff has brought fellow Norwegian Sven Erik Bystrom with him, while Martin can count on the support of experienced domestique Rory Sutherland, who left Movistar for UAE Team Emirates.
UAE Team Emirates shook up the transfer market by investing several million Euro is its trio of new leaders and also began a process of transformation, moving on from its Italian heritage with the aim of becoming one of the top teams in the WorldTour.
Martin was not afraid to jump on board after hearing about the team's ambitions during the summer of 2017 from team manager Carlo Saronni, the son of former world champion Giuseppe Saronni. The elder Saronni remains a part of the management structure, alongside Mauro Gianetti, who used his network of contacts to find the team's backers in the Middle East.
Despite recent doubts by team management, Aru is expected to lead UAE Team Emirates at the Giro d'Italia, with Martin the leader for the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France. Kristoff will target the sprints and the spring Classics.
"I was pretty excited by the project and the opportunity that Carlo Saronni and team gave me. Right from the early conversations, they really believe in my potential and that it isn't fully tapped. That includes the Tour de France," Martin says.
"The team has undergone a massive transition and there's huge drive to be successful. It's gone from being an Italian team through and through to far more international. Now all the emails we get are in English. All the soigneur and mechanics have studied English. It might take a couple of years for it all to come together but we're on the right track. That's what's exciting about this team for me personally. I could sense their ambition to become one of the best in the world. I wanted to be part of that and help reach that goal."
Maturity makes the difference at the Tour de France
Martin has ridden 11 Grand Tours during his 12-year career and tackled the Tour de France five times. His naturally aggressive style of racing has earned him huge admiration from fans and respect from his fellow riders but perhaps cost him better overall results at the Tour.
He long believed it was that better to avoid putting all his eggs in a three-week basket in July and his success at the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia in 2014 confirmed his wide-ranging talents. Martin has matured because of those Classic victories. His natural aggression remains but it has been tempered with age and experience.
"I think I've mellowed a little now and that's made the difference in the Tour de France in the last couple of years," Martin explains.
"I'm more confident now, I don't fight the bike as much as I once did. Now I ride more calmly, I sit there observing, holding back my natural aggression and only choosing the right moment when to attack. 2016 was really my first Tour at the front of the race and so I lacked a little bit of confidence. Now I know I can follow the best and that keeps me relaxed for when you need to be aggressive.
"I have a different approach to other riders because I do try to take advantage of situations. There were several times when I grabbed 10-15 seconds at a finish in 2017 because I wasn't afraid to attack. It might only be 10-15 seconds but they matter now in Grand Tours. The seconds could have been crucial if I hadn't crashed on stage 9."
While the likes of Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) were not enamoured with the route of the 2018 Tour de France, with the Dutchman opting to first target the Giro d'Italia, Martin loves the growing unpredictability of the Grande Boucle and the lack of long time trials.
He splits the 2018 Tour route into "ten days of Classics and ten days in the mountains," pointing out that he naturally races each stage, whatever its length, as though it were a Classic.
"It's the only way to stay sane at the Tour," he says with a laugh that shows little fear of the sport's biggest race.
"This year's Tour route seems to suit my naturally one-day race mentality. The skills you need for the Ardennes Classics comes in handy because I know how to look after myself.
"There's never a day off in the Tour and that's what makes it different to the Giro and Vuelta. You can lose the Tour every day and it's that mental stress that wears people down. I'm actually happy that I waited a few years before targeting the Tour. You need a certain maturity to be able to target the Tour de France, otherwise it blows your mind."
No sense of sacrifice
Martin spent two weeks with his new UAE Team Emirate teammates at a training camp in Sicily and in December he also visited the wind tunnel in Milan to work on his time trial position aboard his new Colnago bike. He began training for 2018 on November 20 at his home in Andorra, preferring the cold conditions of the Pyrenean enclave to ‘camp fever' – the boredom of being in an out of season holiday hotel with little to do but train and rest.
"I'm already looking forward to racing, I'm a racer after all," he says. "I get bored with all the sitting around at training camps between rides. I prefer to be at home. I don't mess around in training. I prefer to get on with and get it done.
"Andorra is not super high for the benefits of altitude but it's nice to be at home and train at home. I spend 130 days at 1400 metres and I feel that's better than doing a two-week block in isolation. If you do long training camps away from home, you go into the big races mentally fatigued. The mental side of the sport is vastly under rated."
Despite being a pure climber, Martin has shown his inner physical and mental strength. His drive and determination is easy to see and easy to understand its source.
"I'm incredibly to be surrounded by people, especially by my wife, who has the same mindset as I do. She understands the lifestyle we both need to live to be successful," he says.
"It isn't taxing for us to eat healthy or not go out partying, that's not what we enjoy. We've found our own balance in life. If I want a glass of wine with a meal, I'll have one but I also flog myself in training. She's the same with her running. We're fortunate to be like that.
"I don't feel I'm making huge sacrifices. I just know what I'm doing and what I want to do. I enjoy it all. Being a professional cyclist is a lifestyle that I love."
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