Fruit metaphors in sports can often be tricky, but EF Education First team CEO Jonathan Vaughters went there to describe the development of 22-year-old Dani Martínez – the Colombian climber who joined the team last year after two years on the Italian Pro Continental team Wilier Triestina.
After spending an off-season working with his young rider's skills, especially his time-trialling ability, Vaughters saw Martínez go out on February 1 and beat Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Egan Bernal (Team Sky) and Rodrigo Contreras (Astana) to take the Colombian national time trial title.
Martínez has now been given the reins at EF Education First for the Tour Colombia 2.1 – a race where teammate and compatriot Rigoberto Uran finished third last year and Martínez was fifth. With Uran starting a slower build-up for the Tour de France, Martínez will get his opportunity – and the full support of his team – to ride for the win in his home tour.
"He's just a massively talented rider. We've spent a lot of time, money and effort this winter to really dial in his time-trial position and do some other things with him. I don't think his developmental years are behind him, but he's ready to race now," Vaughters said. "The banana is nice and yellow."
Martínez started at the Pro Continental level in 2015 with Team Colombia, then moved to the Italian squad for two years before joining Vaughters' Slipstream programme last season. He quickly proved his worth with fifth at the Colombia Oro y Paz – the Tour Colombia 2.1's former name – and then seventh at the Volta a Catalunya.
He rode unremarkably at the Ardennes Classics but bounced back again for 12th at the Tour de Romandie and third overall at the Tour of California, where compatriot Bernal took the win by 1:25 over Tejay van Garderen [then BMC, now EF Education First] and 2:14 to Martínez.
For this week in Colombia, EF Education First stacked the roster for Tuesday's 14km opening team time trial in Medellin, sending Taylor Phinney and Lawson Craddock down south to join Martínez, Uran, Alex Howes and Nathan Brown. The team is hoping for a top result that sets Martínez up for the rest of the week.
"My feelings are good in the legs, and we'll see [on Tuesday]," Martínez told Cyclingnews from a sofa in the team hotel lobby. It'll be a good test. Everybody – Taylor, Lawson, Alex, Nate and Rigo – will be pushing in the time trial to smash it.
"I think three or four of the guys on this team were the same for the Tour de France last year, and so that gives me full confidence because they'll be pushing full gas."
'I learn from Rigo every day'
To improve his own time trial, Martínez spent time in a wind tunnel in California over the winter, dialling in his position and to get the feel of it. He spent hours riding his time trial bike, sometimes going all out, but often just spending kilometres on the TT bike so that the new position felt second nature. It paid off with his first Colombian national champion's jersey. Now he wants to repeat that success at Colombia 2.1.
Martínez is heading into the race knowing that Uran will be backing his effort and helping him along the way. The 22-year-old said he learns every day from his 32-year-old teammate's vast experience.
"I learn from Rigo every day, every day, every day," Martínez said. "He's very professional in his life and on his bike, and Rigo is a very good person. Rigo is under so much pressure every day at the Tour. The people at home in Colombia are watching him and saying, 'Go Rigo.' There is so much pressure for him, but he is relaxed every day.
"Rigo's personality is fantastic. With the leader in the race, there is no stress. He comes up to everybody and asks, 'How are you? Good? OK, man. I need you pulling.' Or you could say, 'Ah, I'm not feeling very good,' and he'll say, 'OK, stay here and, after you recover, start pulling, please.' Rigo's personality is a fantastic one for a leader."
Those lessons may come in handy some day in the not-too-distant future when Martínez is riding the Grand Tours for his own results rather than for his more experienced, more accomplished teammates. And the big tours are definitely part of his future plans.
"The Tour de France is my dream," he said. "I like the race. Last year was my first Tour de France, and I enjoyed every day with Rigo and Sep Vanmarcke and everybody. It is my dream."
But for now, Martínez is dreaming of helping Uran onto the final podium this year in France, repeating Uran's performance in 2017 when he finished second overall to Team Sky's Chris Froome.
"The mentality of this team is to go for the podium at the Tour de France," he said. "It is possible this year. The most important thing is the overall result, because every day will be for Rigo, and I will listen to my directors."