Dan Martin can hear his phone ringing from across the room. His legs, still nursing the fatigue and weariness that only a Grand Tour can inflict, slowly twitch into life and pick him up from the sofa as he limps towards the buzzing device.
"Hello, Dan? It's Dave Brailsford here. Have you got a moment?"
It's a few days after the Tour de France and Martin, fresh from finishing sixth overall in Paris, has been wading through offers from teams looking to lure him into their kit for 2018. Brailsford's Team Sky are in the running but so too are UAE Team Emirates, while Trek Segafredo, Katusha, and Dimension Data have also made approaches.
During their phone call, Brailsford congratulates Martin on his performance in the Tour, spells out the role he would have within Sky – the opportunities and the responsibilities – and briefly talks race programmes. It boils down to this: join us, work for Froome at the Tour, have your chances in week-long races, and we'll win together. As Martin ends the call, amicably of course, he realises he has a few important decisions to make.
It's the second rest-day at the 2017 Giro d'Italia and Martijn Berkhout of SEG Cycling touches down in Italy. In his hand is a briefcase stuffed with rider proposals, a list of appointments as long as his arm, and a laptop full of data on almost every rider, every team, and every race. For an agent of Berkhout's calibre – who counts the likes of Martin, Bauke Mollema and Sep Vanmarcke among his clients – this is one of the most important periods of the season.
One of the key appointments on Berkhout's schedule is with Carlo Saronni. The son of former world champion, Giuseppe Saronni, Carlo is an influential part of the UAE Team Emirates set-up. Berkhout goes into their meeting with an open mind and without an agenda.
With no riders currently on the team's books, this is more about face-time, pleasantries, and – perhaps most importantly – a learning exercise for both parties. From the outset, however, Berkhout is impressed with what Saronni has to say. The Italian waxes lyrical about Emirates – how they're in the market for a Tour leader, a Giro leader, and a sprinter-cum-classics specialist. They want to step up, Saronni says, and they have the budget and the infrastructure to do it. The broadening smile smeared across Berkhout's face suggests 'you've come to the right place'. At the end of the meeting the two shake hands and, while their exact conversation remains confidential, it's at this point that Dan Martin’s move to UAE Team Emirates begins to take shape.
"During the Giro and the spring we had a lot of talks about teams. Pretty much every team other than Movistar showed interest in Dan," Berkhout casually tells Cyclingnews.
"Bora, Katusha, Sky, BMC; there wasn't a single team saying no at the beginning. It was obvious what Dan was all about given his strong start to the year but the problem is always about turning the interest into something concrete."
Martin had indeed started the season in impressive fashion. Sixth at the Volta ao Algarve was backed up by third in Paris-Nice, second in La Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Lieège, and another podium in the Critérium du Dauphiné. Although wins had been thin on the ground, few riders had been so consistent in both the stage racing and one-day arenas.
"I'm a bit of a special case in that I usually have a worse season when my contract is up for renewal," Martin jokingly tells Cyclingnews. "Most guys find it motivating but for me I don't try and let it affect me. I try and separate myself from that and that's why I pay the guys at SEG to take care of that pressure for me."
Before Berkhout's meeting with UAE at the Giro, the Dutchman looked, first and foremost, to Patrick Lefevere at QuickStep. The Belgian had signed Martin from Cannondale two years previously and the collaboration had yielded a string of impressive stage racing results. At first, Lefevere appeared open to keeping Martin but behind the scenes the veteran team boss was struggling to find the financial recourses for the coming seasons. With a stacked and stellar line-up already on his books, and increased contract demands from several of his riders, Lefevere hit the pause button on all negotiations after the Classics in a bid to buy time.
"We always gave Lefevere the first option," Berkhout says.
"But we researched the market to see what kind of options there were, too. There were some teams looking for a leader but we didn't know what was happening right away. For example, Contador and Trek, and what was happening with Sky and Landa, but QuickStep were keen on keeping Dan and that was really the starting point.
"I was talking to Lefevere and I told him that Dan felt good. I asked Lefevere if he would invest more in the Grand Tours and in Dan. He postponed those talks by a week, then another week, and then another week and suddenly we were at the Tour de France. At the same time I travelled to the Giro to hear Emirates' plans for next year and from that moment they kept me in the loop and it was the starting point for that option. They had a good story, a good plan, and a good strategy."
Martin isn't the sort of rider who sits down on January 1, scans through the list of WorldTour teams, calls up his agent and shouts down the receiver with a list of demands. A prima donna he most certainly is not. He has put his trust in Berkhout's agency for several years and over time the two parties have moulded around one another.
"Nah, there's no list," the Irishman says.
"I'm quite naïve of the transfer market and tend to concentrate more on what I'm doing on the bike. A rider of my position, the possibility of teams relies on space, so I don't want to be going to a team that already has lots of GC riders. There needs to be sporting options that are open. So it's important to have someone who is in touch with the market. The agent comes to the rider and says 'look, what do you think of this team or that team?'
"This season started so well and because of that I actually expected things to get signed a lot earlier than they were. The fact that it look longer, I guess that's one of the signs of how modern cycling in moving. Everyone seems to hesitate and wait, whereas last year guys who had good months in March and April were signed really quickly. I thought there might be some movement for me in May."
On the one hand there was movement in May, with Berkout's productive meeting with Saronni, but Lefevere's stalling had a knock-on effect on the entire market – not just on riders at QuickStep. Katusha's plans were built around the future of Marcel Kittel, while Bob Jungels, Julian Alaphilippe, Fernando Gaviria were all parties of interest for several other teams. In the end, Lefevere let Kittel go and kept the other three aforementioned riders, but when it came to Martin, a contract offer never materialised.
Experience had told Berkhout not to wait. He'd held initial talks with several WorldTour options and sounded them out on Martin's behalf. Nothing was turned down and a number of options were, as Berkhout calls it, 'kept on the table', but the meeting in May with Saronni had clearly left an impression.
A second round of talks took place involving Berkhout, Saronni junior and senior, and former pro-rider Mauro Gianetti, who is listed as the team's business manager but whose experience goes far beyond that.
"We were already talking in May about possibilities but you're always waiting on firm interest," Martin says. "Until there were firm negotiations I just concentrated on what I was doing but around the Dauphiné the viable options started to become apparent. That's when I learned about how viable UAE were. They were very much at the forefront and wanted to sign me right away. That was crucial in the negotiations moving forward."
During the Tour, Berkhout watched on as Martin ran the gauntlet for three weeks. Without a contract signed this was a critical period for the Irishman. One can only imagine what went through Berkhout's mind when he saw his rider fall alongside Richie Porte on stage 9 but the Irishman picked himself up and made it to Paris with a more than respectable result and performance.
"Options come and go but at the Tour it was crazy. I'd wake up one day and think Dan would sign this way and then the next day I'd wake up and think it was going to go another way, but UAE were always in the picture," says Berkhout.
Had Martin not crashed, the podium would have been in sight but sixth was nothing to be sniffed at and, during the race, Martin briefly met with Carlo Saronni on a morning before a stage start, while a follow-up call between the rider and Gianetti was organised around the same time. The list of Trek, QuickStep, Katusha, Dimension Data, UAE and Team Sky was quickly narrowed down to the latter pairing.
"I've known him for a long time and wanted to see what he thought about where I should go next. I've known all those guys a long time on Sky," Martin says.
"It was maybe on the day we reached Paris. It was a thirty-second chat on the way to Paris and more about me congratulating him. He might have even said to me 'mate, are you coming here next year or what?' But every year I've been up for contract the Sky guys have come to me and said 'you should come to this team.'"
Martin also talked to Fabio Aru during the Tour. The Italian had been linked to the UAE team since the start of the year and, while UAE were keen to bring the Irishman on board for the Tour, they also had designs on signing Aru for the Giro d'Italia. For both Berkhout and Martin, the signing of Aru didn't represent a conflict. UAE wooed both riders with the chance to lead the squad at their favoured Grand Tours, while the rest of the squad would be divided fairly around their ambitions and those of fellow new recruit Alexander Kristoff.
Once the Tour was over, negotiations ramped up another notch. UAE were in the driving seat but Team Sky were also still in the frame. Trek, having woken up to the fact that Contador was going to retire, made a last-minute move but it was too little too late.
"The week after the Tour we got really busy. I talked to UAE during the Tour but it was the days after when I really talked more to them and learned more about their plan," says Martin.
"The years I'm going into now, it's not about money; it's about opportunities. That was the thing I was most nervous about because you look at the team this year and then you see the plans they have for 2018 and it's a completely different position. It's a really exciting team going forward."
As for Sky, it all came down to the role they could offer him. With Froome and a cacophony of stars on board, Martin's options would always be limited. The departure of Mikel Landa, however, opened up one door. The question was whether Martin could step through it.
"With Sky, it was simple. Landa had left and it meant that Sky was an option for Dan," Berkhout says.
"It would have meant Dan would have filled the Landa role in Grand Tours and then had his chances in week-long stage races but Dan decided, and we fully back him, that this wasn't his role for the team. It was nice to have the interest and it was respectful talks from both sides but it wasn't the right role. Dan wants to be a leader. It's another reason why he wouldn't have stayed with Quick-Step. He wanted full focus on himself in Grand Tours and Emirates can give him that.
"In the end it came down to Sky and Emirates. They were really clear options. In the end he went for a project and turned down the best team in the world because it wasn't the right role for him. Sky would have been a good fit, he knows the riders, but in the end he made the decision based on leadership."
Martin echoed those sentiments. Landa's departure had created a spot on Sky but the Spaniard's time there had illustrated just how tricky leadership could be for Froome's underlings. Landa had been forced to share leadership at the Giro and was then shepherded towards to the Tour in order to ride tempo for 3,000 kilometres.
"After I talked to Dave I had a couple of days to think and then I decided to go with UAE," Martin says.
"We talked about whether Landa was going to stay or not and how I saw myself in the team and my ambitions. In the end I wasn't willing to wait. After talking to Dave it made me realise that I wanted the chance to lead a team myself and not have a question mark going into the season. For me it's about going to the races I want to try and win as a full-on team leader. I've never really had that – a strong team fully backing me."
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