Twice second to Alejandro Valverde at La Flèche Wallonne, and with five top-10 places in total, Dan Martin is one of the few riders with a legitimate chance of beating the Spaniard on the slopes of the Mur de Huy this Wednesday. The 31-year-old Irishman has never won the race, and although Valverde is hunting a jaw-dropping sixth win, Martin believes that simply focusing on his Movistar rival could be an error.
"He’s human," Martin told Cyclingnews when asked if Valverde could be beaten on the Mur de Huy.
"It’s about finding the way to beat him. I know that I’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’ve not saved energy at the start of some races, but I've made a big improvement there. The danger is that I concentrate too much on him and someone else slips away. Although he’s the outstanding favourite, I also need to watch other riders and see how the race opens up. I’m expecting it to be a much more aggressive race and it could be a much smaller group at the bottom.”
In 2017 Martin found himself blocked in the bunch as the peloton began the final 300m up the long-busting finishing slopes of the Mur de Huy. By the time he had picked his way through the field to take second – a superb ride in itself – Valverde had raised his arms in victory.
“I was well-placed with 1km to go in 2017 but it was raced differently last year," he said. "The peloton raced it really hard at the start of the climb and that caught me by surprise. Normally there’s a pause before the steep section but it went hard, and then there was a slow down. Then I was blocked. I do have a skill in judging it, but to win the race I haven’t got it quite right yet. It’s a race I still really enjoy.
“This year I think it could be a very different race. There are a lot of strong riders who are in very good condition and they won’t wait for the Mur. I think it’s going to be open and aggressive. It could still come down to the Mur again, but it’s going to be a lot harder. People are resigned to the fact that you probably need to take on Valverde in a different way, and I think the race will start from a lot further out. The team leaders are going to have a lot less teammates for the finale. Flèche is still the one missing from my palmarès and that’s weighing on me a bit.”
The first few months of this campaign have been a transition period for Martin. The former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner switched from Quick-Step Floors to UAE Team Emirates during the winter and admits that it has been a learning experience. Results have been modest so far, but Martin’s main goals for the year come at Flèche and Liège, before a major assault on the Tour de France in July.
"It’s always hard coming into a new team but we’re getting there. We’re adapting to all the new equipment. It sounds silly but it’s change and that takes a period of adaptation. For example, on the first few rides with Campagnolo I was changing gears the wrong way,” he said.
It’s not just Martin who has had to adapt. UAE lost Louis Meintjes to Dimension Data and brought in Alexander Kristoff to lift their Classics squad. Now in their second season the team are still acclimatising to the demands of WorldTour racing and working for different leaders.
“It’s taken time and you’re learning with new staff, directors and, most importantly, new riders. It’s a learning process to find out how everyone works, and at the same time the staff are learning how to deal with me. We’re getting there. I’m really happy here.”
Martin’s Ardennes week began modestly. The Irishman was a DNF at Amstel Gold Race, but he has rarely shone in the Dutch Classic. For Martin, it’s all about the next five days, and if he can finally beat Valverde, and the rest of the field, at La Flèche Wallonne.
"Amstel was my typical below-par performance but I’m used to it. I felt good in the race, although the body was still a bit stiff in the race after my crash in Catalunya. That was a heavy fall and getting the rhythm back has taken some time. But last Sunday I felt good, but the distance just got to me in the end. Now it’s all about the next few days.”
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