Altitude camps aren’t simply about filling the legs with kilometres and the lungs with rarefied air, they also serve to prepare the mind for what is to come. When Guillaume Martin was choosing a training site ahead of the Giro d’Italia, he settled on an evocative location.
Rifugio Sapienza, perched on the southern side of Mount Etna, will host the finish of stage 4 of the Giro on Tuesday afternoon, and the mountain refuge also doubled as Martin’s training base last month as he prepared for his debut in the corsa rosa. During his time at Cofidis, Martin had usually carried out his altitude work at Sierra Nevada, but the brooding volcano proved irresistible ahead of the Giro d'Italia.
“There were lots of reasons. There were the obvious ones like the weather and the altitude, but there was also the idea of soaking up the Italian atmosphere before the Giro,” Martin said. “I was also able to do a recon of the Etna stage, so it was a combination of things.”
Martin began his Sicilian sojourn in early April, visiting Catania and Taormina with his girlfriend before housing himself at Rifugio Sapienza, 1900m above sea level, to complete his build-up to the Giro. His coach Samuel Bellenoue travelled to the island to accompany him through the latter part of the camp.
The Sisyphean endeavour of repeatedly climbing the same mountain road perhaps appealed to the philosopher in Martin, though the volcano already held happy memories for the Frenchman. He won atop Mount Etna on the 2019 Giro di Sicilia, and he had already trained there the previous season with his Wanty-Gobert team.
The Giro returns to Mount Etna for the fourth time in six years on Tuesday, but while the finale at Rifugio Sapienza is familiar, the approach from Biancavilla is different. The lower, wooded slopes were tackled in 2018, when Esteban Chaves took the stage victory, but this time around the route continues towards the mountain refuge to make it a 22km-long finishing climb.
“It’s the same finish line that has been used in the past, but there’s a different way of getting up there. I think it’s the most difficult side of the climb, it’s really steep and I think it will be possible to see gaps already there,” said Martin, who warned that the Giro’s first summit finish would be complicated by its position immediately after the transfer from Hungary to Sicily.
“I think it’s the rest day that’s going to be hard to manage. We have to catch the plane early on Monday morning and then recover from that. Then the stage itself is relatively short, but some rolling roads before we even get to Etna. That’s what will be difficult to manage.”
Martin arrives in Sicily just over a minute down in the overall standings after conceding ground to his general classification rivals in the opening two days of the race.
The Frenchman lost 12 seconds when he was caught on the wrong side of a split during the skirmish at Visegrád on stage 1, though he declared himself reassured by his display in the following afternoon’s time trial in Budapest, when he limited his losses on Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco) to 45 seconds.
“My sensations in the time trial were quite good and the result too,” Martin said.
“After the first stage, where I was obviously a bit disappointed with those lost seconds, I didn’t really know where I was at physically. I didn’t know if it was because of crashes or because of my shape. I’m reassured now; I’m in the game.”
In 2021, Martin had played with the idea of chasing stage victories at the Grand Tours rather than the general classification, but his consistency carried him to eighth overall at the Tour de France and then ninth at the Vuelta a España. Those qualities of endurance have convinced him to target the general classification from the outset at this Giro, and he will expect to begin his ascent on the friendly expanses of Mount Etna.
The necessity of preserving his Cofidis squad’s position in the WorldTour, meanwhile, played no real part in Martin’s participation in this Giro. A high overall finish in Verona would, of course, contribute heavily to their running total of UCI points, but like in April, Martin is in Italy entirely of his volition.
“It was above all my own personal choice and I’m very happy that the team followed it,” Martin said.
“In truth, if you want to score a lot of UCI points, Grand Tours aren’t necessarily the best way to go about it, because there is such an investment of time and resources required for the points on offer. You’d actually be better off doing a series of one-day races. I’m very happy that, despite the imperative to score points, Cofidis have gone along with my desire to come to the Giro.”
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.