Itzulia Basque Country is widely regarded as the hardest stage race outside the Grand Tours, so Daniel Martínez's victory was quite the statement. But it was underlined by the leadership role he took not only in the race but also within his Ineos Grenadiers team.
Thomas won the Tour in 2018, while Yates has been touted by Ineos management as their leader for this year's Grande Boucle. However, Martínez is building a stronger and stronger case for a protected role with every pedal stroke.
"There's still a long way to go until the Tour de France," Martínez said after pulling on the yellow jersey as Itzulia champion on Saturday evening.
"The team has clear objectives. There are very strong riders as well, so that's it, I'm at the disposal of what the team says."
Martínez made his breakthrough by winning his first major race at the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné before leaving EF to join Ineos Grenadiers. He hit the ground running and played an instrumental role in guiding Egan Bernal to victory at the Giro d'Italia, where he managed to bag fifth place for himself in the process.
He barely raced after that last season but has started out strongly in 2022, placing third overall at both the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice before landing the Itzulia crown.
With Bernal set to miss the Tour after his life-threatening training crash this winter, Ineos' plans have opened up somewhat, and the Colombian media returned to the idea of Martínez staking a claim to leadership.
"I'm calm," he said.
"The team has riders of a very high level here. We've got Adam Yates here, we're got Geraint Thomas, who is looking stronger every day. He's a rider with a lot of experience who will, without doubt, arrive in very good shape at the Tour de France.
"So that's it," he repeated. "I'm at the disposal of what the team says."
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