The elation was palpable as Dan Martin punched the air in sight of the line on stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné. The liberation even more so, as the Irishman sat down for an almost confessional stage winner's press conference in Valmorel, telling of his woes this season and how he has rediscovered himself as a bike racer.
"The lowest moment of the year for me, the saddest moment, was La Flèche Wallonne. I looked at myself afterwards and said 'what am I going to do?'," Martin revealed in fluent French.
It was quite clear that this was no ordinary press conference.
"I reflected a lot since the Classics, and I asked myself, 'Why do I race my bike?'. And the answer I arrived at was: 'For pleasure'. I race for pleasure. That's it. You have to race with a smile on your face, you have to have a laugh with your teammates, and that's one of the errors I'd made this year; I put too much pressure on myself."
The reason for that pressure was no doubt the change of teams, Martin having left Quick-Step Floors for a greater leadership role – and presumably more money – at UAE Team Emirates.
Yet he was some way below his best in the first half of 2018, finishing 13th at the Volta ao Algarve and 38th at the Volta a Catalunya, and abandoning Paris-Nice on the penultimate stage. Then it was time for the Ardennes Classics, a perennial target for Martin, but he abandoned Amstel Gold Race and was completely out of the picture at La Flèche Wallonne, where he'd previously part of the podium furniture.
After looking in that mirror, he came back that weekend and finished 18th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège – nothing special considering he has won the race in the past, but it was certainly a start.
"I think the change was already visible at Liège," Martin said. "I was myself again, I was more aggressive, I was up at the front."
Things steadily improved for Martin, who finished 10th overall at the Tour de Romandie before having a break and then setting his sights on the Tour de France. At the Dauphiné, there was a glimpse that he was back to his old self as he attacked on the final climb on Thursday, but Friday's ride was the victory – and the release – he so badly needed.
"I arrived here and said 'OK, I'm going to race with a smile, I'm going to hold my head high, I'm going to have a laugh with my teammates, and if I win, I win, and if not, it's just a cycling race'," Martin said.
"That's how I've raced my whole career, and I asked myself why that changed this year. But now you can see the result because I'm racing with pleasure again."
Tour de France
Martin has finished in the top 10 of the past two editions of the Tour de France, and part of the reason he left Quick-Step for UAE was to have an all-out crack at the maillot jaune. Last year Quick-Step were built around Marcel Kittel, and Martin was notably left isolated in the stage 16 crosswinds while most of his teammates were back with the German chasing what had long been a lost cause.
At UAE, Martin will share the squad with sprinter Alexander Kristoff but will still have riders dedicated to his cause. But the thing he craves above all else is a smooth ride to Paris and a chance to truly see what he is capable of.
"For the Tour this year, the objective for me is to reach Paris without crashes and without illness," he said. "I can't say I want to get fifth, or whatever, because I've never done a Tour without getting injured, without falling ill, without problems. If I can reach Paris with good condition, and no problems, I'll be very happy. I cannot control the result because it depends on others. If I'm in top condition, the best I can be, but if the others are stronger, then that's how it is."
The way Martin rode away from a field containing more than a few Tour de France contenders certainly caught the eye and will raise expectations ahead of July. Part of the problem with gauging the chances of the yellow jersey hopefuls at this Dauphiné, however, is the fact that there's an extra week before the Tour de France.
"What did [Adam] Yates say, that he's at 85 per cent? I'll say 84 then," Martin quipped.
"I think form is a mystery. No one knows how you gain it, or how you lose it. I'm just happy to win today. For the Tour, we'll see. I think it's better to be in good condition here, then rest a bit before the Grand Depart, rather than do badly here and have the pressure on.
"I'm happy. I know I've got a bit of work to do, I don't have the sprint I usually do, but I know why and that's because I haven't sprinted since Liège, so that's normal. But I'm happy with how the race is going. The Dauphiné always a bit of a rollercoaster race."
The press conference had turned to the more mundane topics of form and results, but a French journalist, perhaps keen to plug back into that earlier tone, asked Martin if he had any dreams left in cycling.
"No," he said, quickly. "When I was 11 or 12, at school, if you'd have asked me what my dream was, I'd never have said I dream of being a pro cyclist; I'd have said I am going to be a professional cyclist.
"For me, a dream means it's not possible, or you think it's almost impossible. I've never had dreams, because in life, in reality, anything is possible."
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