Experience, consistently good results and extensive first-hand knowledge of the field of battle are all on Dan Martin's side in the Volta a Catalunya. But recent events mean there will be an initial question mark on the Irishman's condition for the race.
Sickness recently saw Martin abandon Paris-Nice, where he'd finished on the podium in 2017, just as the race entered its crucial final weekend. On the plus side, Martin has recovered quickly enough to be at the Volta a Catalunya start. On the downside, it's not yet totally clear how far along the recovery trail the UAE Team Emirates racer has now travelled.
"I'm feeling good," Martin told Cyclingnews before the start of stage 1, "although obviously some of this year hasn't really gone to plan so far.
"I had really good condition in Paris-Nice, I did all the hard part and unfortunately just as my part of the race was starting I got sick," he said. "That was far from ideal and that's left a question mark over my condition for this week. So we'll see how I've recovered and hopefully do well. Historically, I've got quite a decent track record at this race. I just hope we can get to the parts which suit me."
Indeed, the Volta a Catalunya is arguably one of the races on the calendar that Martin knows the best, and it's unquestionably one in which he has done consistently well. He won the race in 2013, took two stages and finished second in 2009 - to Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) as it happens - and in 2011, fourth in 2012, third in 2016 and sixth in 2017. He first rode it way back in 2008, his first full professional year, taking 24th.
Potential after effects of his illness notwithstanding, Martin's principal concern is that in the Pyrenees, "The weather's not looking too great. Ok, it's sunny here, but yesterday [Sunday] morning it was minus 10 degrees in [nearby] Andorra. There’s been a few years when the race has been changed by the weather, and here [in Catalona], it’s been one of the coldest winters in years."
On the plus side, the Irishman knows most of the Volta a Catalunya's 2018 route extremely well. Martin has tackled the Valter 2000 climb - set to be the race's toughest stage - twice in the past, and he says with a headwind, as tends to be the case in that part of the Pyrenees, “the hardest part isn’t very selective, but it’s definitely a finish that suits me."
With Fabio Aru in the UAE Team Emirates line-up for Catalunya too - although Aru crashed on stage 1, initial reports said it was without major consequences - Martin argues that he can afford to be "a bit more cagey, wait for longer on the climbs if need be.
"We're similar kinds of riders, but we've got different racing strategies, so that's good," Martin said. "Then we'll just have to wait to see what Alejandro gets up to. In any case, you know it’s going to be a very tight race."
Of the three Movistar GC contenders, Martin says he expects Valverde to be the leader. Uphill small group sprint finishes, which could well feature on the two big Pyrenean stages, have long proved favoured terrain for the veteran Movistar racer. So in an event with time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds on each stage finish, and which is often decided by seconds, the Spaniard could well be the top favourite.
That said, Martin has won the Volta overall - in a year when Valverde was amongst the starters - and it remains a race close to his heart, too.
"It’s a great race, you see by the start list in the peloton," he said. "It's a pity it gets affected by the weather so much, it could be even more brutal than it actually is. And for me, it’s nice to be able to get in the car and drive home after the last finish."
After the Volta a Catalunya, Martin will head directly to the Ardennes Classics, where he will very likely cross swords with Valverde again at Amstel, Flèche and Liege-Bastogne-Liège. First, though, there’s a major battle to fight on home soil.
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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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