Few riders, if any, have attacked more than Dan Martin in the mountains of the Tour de France this year and after nine stages the Etixx-QuickStep rider is sitting third on GC, just 19 seconds off the race. These are heady days for a rider pigeonholed as a one-day or week-long specialist with a penchant for attacking.
In many ways this has been a very un-Martin Tour. With all due respect there have been no crashes, no bouts of illness and no pointless time gaps lost on the flat roads of the first week. Martin has, for all to see, ridden the opening week of the Tour as a genuine overall contender.
Yet it says a lot that his 'day-by-day', 'stage-by-stage' mantras are still routinely part of his Tour lexicon. After all, Martin has never been this close to a race lead after such a block of Tour racing. He came into the race - and still argues – that stage wins are a priority but that line will only carry authority if or when he loses considerable time. For now, just as Chris Froome says, you have to take Martin seriously.
"When we came into the race we didn't really have any expectations," he said, testing the waters with a small group of press journalists who had journeyed out to the Etixx-Quickstep hotel to meet him.
"I knew that I was in good condition from climbing well at the Dauphine and there's no reason you can't do that at the Tour. A lot can happen in the first week in the Tour and now I find myself in this position."
There are three elements Martin appears to have improved on in the last twelve months. He has always been a tough competitor but he appears to have become far steelier and calculating this season. Secondly, he has improved his condition. Patrick Lefevere, his manager since the start of the year, told Cyclingnews that Martin had lost 3 kilos, and the Irishman has also pinpointed a number of diet and lifestyle choices as to the reasons he has been consistently strong.
"I just stick to a pretty strict diet now. Gluten doesn't really agree with me so I avoid that and there have been general health changes. I put that down to living here and losing weight. Some of the water retention has gone too. I'm feeling really healthy. Allergies aren't something you can run away from or cure."
Thirdly, he has become a better climber. The diet, the weight loss and the allergy management have been combined but the fact that Martin now trains more on longer climbs, having moved from Girona to Andorra, has vastly helped him kick on another level.
"I didn't expect it to have made such a big difference. When I lived in Girona the longest climb took 30 minutes, here I have 16 or so 30 minute climbs within an hour of my house. I can spend all the day climbing, climbing, climbing."
Ventoux and time trial
The next two weeks will see Martin race into the unknown at the Tour and while much has been made of the final flurry in the mountains, the stage to Mont Ventoux and the rolling time trial on the following day could be just as pivotal. Froome obliterated the opposition on the Ventoux in 2013 and while Martin might internally see Froome in a league of his own, the Irishman will no doubt look to cement his GC standing.
"On the Ventoux with the gradient, there really is no hiding. It doesn't matter if you're on someone's wheel or not. The wind, if it's a headwind, that could make a big difference but hopefully I have a good day because if you have a bad day then it can really cost you."
The 37.5 km time trial on stage 13 could see major gaps created in the GC. Martin, surprisingly hasn't raced a long time trial since 2014, a factor that means he will head into the race somewhat in the dark. He expects to lose time to the likes of Froome and possible Quintana but his current form suggests that the time he sheds could be less than one would have suggested in the past.
"I've no idea about the time trial because I honestly can't remember the last time I did one. They don't seem to put them in races anymore. I feel good on the bike and have fast equipment but maybe my last time trial was the 2014 Vuelta. The prologue last year in the Tour was around 10 kilometres and then my first race day of the year in Valencia was a short time trial. I went well in the uphill time trial at the Dauphine but this is a bit different."
How far can he go?
Dotted around Andorra every rider within two minutes of the race lead will have been asked by countless journalists, "how far can the go" or "where are you aiming on GC"? Martin is no exception for all of the reasons above. At one point in his press meeting he said that he would not get carried away but why not indulge everyone, after all he's just 19 seconds off the lead. Can you win the Tour?
"I'm in the race but there are 190-odd other riders who could win it. I'm in a good position but I don't know. The way I'm feeling, I'm being realistic and I know that with the two time trials coming up, I'm going to lose time to Froome. As I said before, in the Tour everyone has a bad day and it depends when that day falls. It's a waiting game and hopefully it happens on a flat stage for me."
It's all conjecture at this stage. We've seen riders have fantastic starts before fading and few would have predicted the top three of Froome, Yates, and Martin at this stage when the race left Utah Beach. Perhaps the only certainly is that if Martin has the legs he will attack.
"You hear talk of people holding back in the third week but I'd much rather be in my position in third overall. The best way to tackle this race is set short term goals and not really think about the long term. That's why when people talk about holding back in the mountains, I'd much rather be in my position and have the luxury of being able to lose time instead of having to make it up.
"I've never understood the whole holding back thing. Maybe it's something that I'll learn in the final week but then again I held back on stage 8 and then paid for that."
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