One of the many bizarre effects of the pandemic is that it’s been barely 11 weeks since Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) and the rest of the Vuelta a España peloton crossed the race's final finish line in Madrid, and he’s already back in the thick of training and preparing for 2021. That being said, it’s also very likely that the 2020 season will linger long in the Irishman’s memory.
That’s because for Martin, results wise, 2020 was a striking year - and ultimately a strikingly good one. After an injury in the Dauphiné saw him dragging himself round the first half of the Tour de France, he subsequently hit the jackpot at the Vuelta.
The 34-year-old not only secured his best Grand Tour GC finish of his career in Spain, with fourth overall, but also took his first win in over two years, an uphill stage in the first week. Looking back on such landmark results, it felt more than appropriate, he told Cyclingnews, that the last big climbing challenge of the Vuelta, La Covatilla in western Spain, was the same ascent where he took his first ever Grand Tour stage win, way back in 2011.
"On that day of the Vuelta I was not in a great place so there wasn’t much time for reflection," Martin said, "but the night before, for sure my teammates were reminding me of how young I looked back then!
"It was almost 10 years before so it’s pretty crazy in that respect and also kind of cool that my first Grand Tour stage win and finalizing my best Grand Tour result all [year] happened on the same climb.
"It’s quite poetic, but also funny when you look back and think ‘My God, how fast the time's gone'."
The 2011 Vuelta was where Martin’s new teammate, Chris Froome, also had a breakthrough race, of course. On the Covatilla, while Martin went for the stage win, Froome delivered a massively above-expectations performance as well, guiding Sky leader Bradley Wiggins all the way to the summit. Having performed the same role once already in Sierra Nevada a few days earlier, Froome's ascent of La Covitilla was confirmation his climbing had stepped up several notches, too.
Fast forward another decade and Froome and Martin are now wearing the same team jersey for the first time in their careers. But Martin says that after so many years where he and Froome, as well another new top teammate Mike Woods, have regularly been sparring partners, he’s confident there won’t be any issues when it comes to dividing up leadership roles in the Grand Tours.
Or, as he put it: "There won’t be any egos here.
"It’s exciting to have guys who can be competitive, and that way we can all spread the pressure," he added, echoing Woods’ words to Cyclingnews a few days earlier this week. "We are of an age where we have that maturity and respect for what each other can do but we also have strength which means we can bounce off each other.
"That respect enables you to make decisions on the road. There are no egos here. We are going to ride for the best rider there is and there’s space enough in the team for us all to get results. It’s positive we are going to race with strength in numbers but still being the underdogs, which is kind of cool."
Olympics and Grand Tour plans
While emphasising that it is too early to make a decision on his definitive 2021 race program, particularly with the routes of the Giro and Vuelta still unpublished, Martin says he’s not ruling out a repeat of the two Grand Tour strategy that served him so well in 2020. Above all, though, he’s not putting himself under any pressure to lay down an early season marker.
"The last few years, the early season has been good. In 2016 I won in Valencia, in 2017 in Algarve, and even last year I was on the front in both of those races. I’m not really thinking about it too much, aiming to peak a little bit later, but form’s a very difficult thing to predict at one point or another. So I’ll just take it as it comes and if works try and get results," he said.
"I wouldn’t rule out two Grand Tours, for sure, given the way I did so well in the Vuelta and even had the Classics to do in between, which was a bit abnormal. Even though the Vuelta was three days shorter than a usual Grand Tour, it was a massive challenge to do, but something I really enjoyed as well.
"Nothing’s confirmed on the programme - we're waiting for routes to come out. We’ve got an idea, for sure, but we’re keeping those ideas close to our chest."
Martin is understandably both very proud of his fourth place in the Vuelta, as well as convinced that it was both a great and completely fair result, with no mishaps or missteps on his part to skew his final overall position. But while giving him a lot of confidence, he said, it also has made him feel more relaxed.
"Even when I arrived at camp, I had no thoughts at all about it, I’m just enjoying it," he said. "I’m going to go to races and race my bike with no expectations, simply to see what happens and what the result is.
"It sounds really boring to talk like that, but I’m at that stage of my career where whatever results I get, are for me. I don’t feel I need to say what I’m going to do or even have any pressure. I‘ve got a lot of good results, I have the respect that comes with that, and anything from now on is a bonus."
At 34, the one race that could be on the 2021 programme for the last time in his career is the Olympic Games. Martin is very keen to take part, particularly as it’s a route that suits him so well, but he, like so many other athletes, is also awaiting what he calls ‘clarification' about the quarantining requirements.
"It’s quite sad, but in cycling, the Olympic Games does tend to feel like any other race. It’s what surrounds it that makes it feel special, like being part of the Athletes’ Village, getting to know them and being a part of that buzz and it seems likely that’s going to be missing," he said.
"The fact is it’s going to feel like just another bike race on the other side of the world that’s going to be difficult to get to. Who knows, but I hope not. It’s a race that is strange to read tactically but it’s a course that really suits me. So it depends a lot on what the governments decide and what the COVID situation is, but I’d love to."
Back to this January and the first training camp of the year, and for Martin, in any case, he’s had a solid if unusual winter programme, with all his holiday time being spent at home for once.
"It's nice to be on a training programme and really feel the racing coming closer, especially with so many new recruits, and to feel that team vibe and how well the team is gelling already," he said.
However, the brevity of the off-season this year has not, he said, affected him negatively because, rather than needing to rest physically, what's most important has been switching off mentally, and that’s something’s he’s made sure he’s done.
"I always say it’s more the psychological rest you need, to take that break and have that respite from being away from home and competition. That’s the challenge of this job; it’s being able to push yourself mentally and physically for weeks on end in training and in racing," he said.
"As long as you give yourself that break in the winter, you should be able to come back fighting. And at this moment, anyway, that’s where I am."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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