On the eve of the Ardennes Classics it's hard to imagine Dan Martin being anymore relaxed than he currently is.
It's arguably the biggest week of racing in the Irishman's 2014 season so far but despite the expected pressure, Martin is cool, collected and looking forward to racing. So relaxed is the Irishman that with three days to go before Amstel he bought and organised a boat ride for his entire Garmin-Sharp team.
That's not to suggest Martin isn't taking the Ardennes seriously. They're the first major objective in his season, followed by the Giro d'Italia, which is less than a month away. As the defending champion in Liege-Bastogne-Liege he knows that a result in at least one of the three Ardennes Classics is expected, especially given that he also came close to winning Fleche Wallonne last year.
"I don't see it as pressure," he told Cyclingnews after his boat trip.
"Last year is done and dusted and while I've not forgotten about wining Liege, it's in the past now. It's all about this year. Obviously wearing number one at the race is going to be incredible and it's a pleasure to rider that race every year. I love the race so much. The passion that I have for these races gives me the extra percentages but as long as I do my best, and the team gives everything, we'll just wait and see what the results are in the end. That's all I can ask for."
Perhaps the biggest improvement in Martin's all-round ability in the last two seasons is his mental strength. At times, as a most young professionals will testify, a lack of experience and self-doubt can be as mentally draining as the parcours of a race itself. Having tasted victory in 2013 at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and then again at the Tour de France with a fine stage win, Martin's confidence is at such a level that when he knows he's on form, he can compete and beat the best in the world.
"I'm coming into these races incredibly confident because I know that I can win them now. I would never go into them aiming for top ten, and I've never been like that anyway. I've always just wanted to go into races in order to give my best. I've got a good track record and my best in these races is pretty good," he said.
"That's where the big difference has come in the last couple of years. Psychologically I'm a lot stronger in that I can focus for the whole race and do everything right. So as long as there's no bad luck I don't see why there's any reason we can't contest for a win in at least one of the races. I don't know about all three but Fleche and Liege, they do suit me better."
Martin hasn't exactly set the world alight with his results this season. Illness at the team training camp in February slowed his training and although he was healthy by the time he lined up for Tirreno-Adriatico in March, he wasn't firing on all cylinders.
Since then he as mixed racing at the Volta a Catalunya, with a stint of work at altitude. Although a first win in 2014 hasn't yet been attained, he believes that his form is there.
"I feel good. I used De Brabantse Pijl - La Flèche Brabançonne how I wanted to and I got out of it what I wanted. I was riding in the wind for Nathan [Haas] a bit and making the race a lot harder for the finale but I was still there without too much trouble," he explained.
"I was surprised with the sensations and I'm feeling really good. I felt good at altitude and I'm getting my body into the swing of things again. I had a couple of niggles last week but I'm excited and optimistic about the coming week."
"I went into Tirreno-Adriatico suffering from an illness. I was 100 per cent healthy but I just wasn't totally firing. I couldn't go flat out and my body was in a bit of shock when I then went flat out in Catalunya. It was the first time I'd gone really hard since October but I think it's going to work well for the Giro and I think I'm going into the Ardennes with a really solid base."
Passion for the Ardennes
As well as his confidence it's Martin's passion for the Ardennes that shines through during the interview. They hold a special place in his heart.
"I love all three of them, and all for different reasons," he said.
"Amstel, I've still not figured it all out yet but that takes experience. I've done Fleche-Wallonne six times and Amstel I've only done two or three times. It's still a learning process but I think have the capacity to be strong in all three."
"What's more we have a really strong team for Amstel. We can play the numbers but Fleche is one of my favourite races and it suits me. I'm learning how to ride it better each year and hopefully the boys can
put me in a great position for the final climb."
"The atmosphere is fantastic within the squad. We're having a great time, and the atmosphere is great. It's a united team and we're all willing to work and sacrifice things for each other. If any of us can win it will be great success."
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