The former Festina trainer Antoine Vayer has never been shy of a sweeping statement in his second life as a media pundit, nor has he ever made any secret of his admiration for Dan Martin. Just this week, in fact, he told the Be-Celt website that he hopes the Irishman wins the 2015 Tour de France because "he is the best of the pure ones."
In the 1990s, for instance, such a reputation did few favours for Martin's fellow Tour of Lombardy winner Gilles Delion, who took a vocal stance on doping at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so, and retired disillusioned at just 30 years of age.
Mercifully, the prevailing mood seems to have changed somewhat since, and Martin was happy to accept the accolade when it was relayed to him at Cannondale-Garmin's training camp at Port d'Alcudia, Mallorca on Wednesday. "It makes me incredibly proud that I've got this reputation and it's humbling how much confidence people have got in me and in us as a team," Martin told Cyclingnews.
Yet one of the great mysteries for the outsider gazing in upon the professional peloton is how a clean rider reconciles with the fact that at least some (and who really knows how many?) of his competitors are doping. Jostling for position at the bottom of the Mur de Huy, for instance, can a Flèche Wallonne contender have faith that all of those around him are playing by the same rules?
"People make assumptions very quickly but for us as riders you have to believe that the testing is working and that everybody is clean now," Martin said. "The number of positives is obviously way down on before and when guys do go positive it's not after elaborate, incredible performances. It makes me humble that people have this 100 per cent confidence in me, but I don't think you can say that [I'm the best of the clean riders]. It's each rider himself who knows for sure."
The biological passport was introduced just as Martin turned professional in 2008 and, in a sense, he is ill-placed to judge its efficacy. The Irishman's results have improved year on year in that time, but he is unsure if that is solely because of his own physical progression or because of the seemingly tighter parameters on blood doping.
"It is hard to know and I was thinking the same thing," he said. "But at the same time, I think 10 years ago you can say I wouldn't be winning Liège clean. But fortunately for me, that's a reality I'm able to take advantage of these days."
Ardennes and the Tour
Although Martin began his 2015 campaign earlier than ever before by lining up for two days of the Challenge Mallorca last month, his early programme follows a distinctly familiar pattern. In essence, his season begins in earnest at Tirreno-Adriatico in March, before he tackles the Volta a Catalunya and the Ardennes classics.
Twin bouts of illness – just before the Challenge Mallorca, and again this week in training camp – mean that Martin is unsure of how race-ready he will be by Tirreno-Adriatico, and team leadership may fall to Ryder Hesjedal or new arrival Davide Formolo. In any case, the Italian race will be an important signpost on the road back to Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"The last few weeks it's been up and down, less than ideal," he said. "I'll see how training goes between now and then. I don't ever want to go to a race at less than 100 per cent, but maybe Tirreno will serve as a build-up to Catalunya like it did two years ago [when Martin won overall - ed.] It might work out like that again.”
By landing a Monument Classic in each of his past two seasons – Liège in 2013 and Il Lombardia last year – the bar has been set high for Martin in 2015, though he says that he doesn't feel any particular onus to keep that sequence going, contract negotiations for next season notwithstanding. Cycling at WorldTour level may be a results business, but Martin's first metric is performance.
"That's always what's separated me a bit. I never set goals to win races, my goal is to do the best possible I can for me. It's alright to go in saying you want to win this race but it depends on how good the other guys are," he said.
"It's the nature of one-day racing: I could have the best legs I've ever had but I could make the wrong decisions or just have plain bad luck, like in Liège last year. And maybe that's why I love one-day racing as well, there's so much more to it than just being the strongest. Hopefully I will be able to add another one-day race this year, but so long as I've prepared properly, then if bad luck hits me, so be it."
Martin will also return to the Tour de France this year after forgoing the race in favour of an ill-starred tilt at the Giro d’Italia, which ended with a broken collarbone in the opening team time trial in Belfast. Andrew Talansky will travel to France as Garmin's leader but Martin will enjoy a free role, as befits a man who finished seventh in the Vuelta a España last year.
With the Mur de Huy featuring in the opening week, Martin will look to be on the offensive from the outset and serve as a useful foil for Talansky. After that, he said, it's a case of come what may.
"It's a very exciting route for me. We'll take it as it comes," he said. "If you asked me if I wanted to get eighth on GC or win a stage, I’d always choose winning a stage. That’s what maybe makes us different. I'm not going to go there focusing on GC but I'm not going to discount it either."
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