There's no doubting Dan Martin's progression as a Grand Tour rider with the Quick-Step Floors team over the past couple of seasons; back-to-back top-ten finishes at the Tour de France speak for themselves. Yet on both occasions he was left with a lingering sense of 'what if?'
The Irishman speaks with genuine enthusiasm about his two years at the Belgian squad, about the family atmosphere and infectious winning mentality, but he knew that, even at 31, there's still untapped potential, and that in order to realise it, new horizons were needed. UAE Team Emirates, a new team, but already one of the most financially powerful, approached him with a plan, and a contract was signed in August.
"The opportunity I've got going forward, it takes the edge off the sadness," Martin told Cyclingnews and Cycling Weekly at the Tour of Britain, one of his final races with Quick-Step.
"If you're sentimental about these things, it can hold your career back and this time I very much made the sporting decision, and went for the opportunity, and try to make the most of the best years of my career."
The clincher was the promise from the team's management to hand him a true leadership role. At Quick-Step, Martin was something of a lone ranger at the Tour de France in a team largely oriented around sprinter Marcel Kittel. Indeed, one of the what-if's from this year's Tour was when Martin lost nearly a minute in the stage 16 crosswinds – Quick-Step's bread and butter – while most of his teammates were at the back of the race with Kittel, chasing a lost cause.
"It's having a team to support me in the races I want to be good at, and going to the Tour de France as team leader," Martin said of his move to UAE.
"I wouldn't say I wasn't team leader this year but there was still Marcel in the team, and it meant I was isolated in the mountains. But with UAE I've got a team that fully believes in the ambition to reach the podium, the potential to reach the podium."
"If I don't go to the Tour, with the full team backing, and try and go for the podium that I could have got this year without the crash, it's something that I'd look back on in my career and think, what if?"
As it stands, with Louis Meintjes leaving UAE for Dimension Data, Martin will be head general classification honcho, though it hasn't escaped him that Fabio Aru is expected to complete a move to the team before long.
The Italian, who won the Vuelta a España in 2015, finished one place above Martin at the Tour this year, and the management could face a headache over how to dovetail their two star stage racers – both in terms of race programmes and, if needs be, within the same race.
"I want to do the Tour," Martin insists. "The way my programme usually works, it's very hard to peak at the Ardennes and do the Giro. The Tour is the all-important one. It's the one you want to be in as a rider.
"I know Fabio, I spoke to him at the Tour a bit. The management have a plan for it. I think Fabio enjoys riding the Giro, he missed it this year and that was his number one aim. It's always good to have another Grand Tour rider because it does take the pressure off a little bit.
"If we're both at the Tour, I mean, what a tag team. So it could be a real big potential to change the race. Having that back-up, that ability to attack with the other guy, it could be a lot of fun as well, so we'll see how that plays out."
Martin references the podium when talking about exploring the limits of his potential at the Tour. With greater consistency than ever on the climbs this year, with more purpose to his attacks, and with noticeable improvements against the clock - all with two broken vertebrae – it doesn't sound too far–fetched.
True to his never-say-die style of racing, however, he hasn't ruled out winning it.
"If you're on the start line, you can win it," he says. "That doesn't go for everyone, but yeah, I learned this year that there's a possibility."
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