Worlds: Tony Martin soothes his own doubts with fourth time trial title
German on his departure from Etixx-QuickStep
Everything in its right place. Tony Martin (Germany) regained the rainbow jersey of world time trial champion in Doha on Wednesday after two years of tweaking his position on the bike eventually saw him simply tear up his plans and start all over again.
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The nadir for Martin came at the Olympic Games in August. After taking silver in London four years ago, he made the race the centrepiece of his 2016 campaign, but could only manage a disappointing 12th place in Rio.
Somewhere during the period of soul-searching that followed that forlorn Brazilian expedition, Martin opted to return to some old habits. His original time trial position may not have been the most aerodynamic, but it was fit for purpose. It had, after all, carried him to three successive world time trial titles, between 2011 and 2013.
Victory in the time trial stage of the Tour of Britain – only his second win against the watch all season – was an affirmation that Martin's decision was a sage one, and he travelled to the UCI Road World Championships with cautious optimism. Those unsteady hopes began to take firmer roots when Martin led Etixx-QuickStep to victory in Sunday's team time trial.
"I have to say I've had a pretty tough almost three years now because I couldn't show my real level in the TT," Martin said on Wednesday. "I was almost on the point where I had to ask myself if I was still a big time triallist or if I was on the way down.
"But going back to the old position on the time trial bike gave me a lot of confidence, I have to say. I felt like another rider, in fact, and the people around me said that I was starting to look like another rider compared to the last months. I was really relaxed before the start. I was just looking forward to the race today."
With the Worlds coming so late in an Olympic year, many of the usual favourites arrived in Doha in varying states of form, and when Irishman Ryan Mullen's fine early time proved well beyond the scope of some later starters with the loftiest of reputations, it seemed as though the final results sheet might take on a rather surprising hue.
While Rohan Dennis (Australia) and Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands) faltered, each victims of their long, long seasons, Martin was smooth throughout the 40-kilometre test. Three seconds clear of reigning champion Vasil Kiryienka (Belarus) at the first time check, he led by 22 seconds by the 26.4-kilometre mark. Come the finish, Kiryienka was the only man within a minute of Martin's time, and he still trailed by 45 seconds – almost a whole kilometre per hour slower than the German's average speed of 53.671kph.
"I really didn't expect to win today," Martin insisted. "I had a plan and I just knew that I had to follow my rhythm. I couldn't pay too much attention to the split times, especially in this heat. But I was pretty surprised to have the best time at the first split, so that was good for morale. Then after I had a big gap at the second split, that made my morale even bigger."
Martin is rarely the most expressive of riders – in the immortal words of Brian Holm, "He isn't exactly Eddie Murphy, is he?" – but his joy was obvious on crossing the finish line on Doha's Pearl, as he unclipped unsteadily from his pedals and began to punch the air in celebration even before he had extricated himself fully from his bike.
Although there were three riders still to finish, it was already apparent that Martin was the world champion in waiting, with a sizeable delegation from Etixx-QuickStep's management – Patrick Lefevere, Wilfried Peeters, Davide Bramati and Tom Steels – all on hand to offer their congratulations. All this, of course, despite Martin's departure for pastures new at Katusha next season after five years at Etixx-QuickStep. Why the change?
"Before my decision, I said I had to change something. I needed some new input – not necessarily better or worse, just different. I just needed some new people around me, but that's not to say Etixx-QuickStep influenced me badly, not at all," Martin said. "I was maybe in a comfort zone, maybe I was a bit too relaxed sometimes, but coming to a new team put you under a bit of pressure again, because you have to show yourself and fight for your position in your team.
"But without the preparation and help with the Etixx-QuickStep team in the last weeks, this wouldn't have been possible, especially Tom Steels. He was amazing in planning for Sunday and for today. I'm sure even when we change jerseys, we'll stay in touch and remain friends. And the cycling world is small. I don't say it's the end forever."
Even so, 2017 will clearly mark a new chapter in Martin's career, and the arrival of German shampoo company Alpecin as a co-sponsor highlights the kind of expectations he will face at the revamped Katusha squad. Small wonder, then, that he acknowledged the fourth rainbow jersey of his career had been a timely one.
"The first one in Copenhagen in 2011 was the most important for me but I think today is probably the second most important because I had a tough year. I'm coming back at what is a really important point in my career," Martin said, adding that his dalliance with the cobbled Classics is likely to continue in 2017.
In the here and now, Martin has equalled Fabian Cancellara's record of four world time trial titles, but he downplayed the idea that matching the Swiss rider's tally had been a motivation in itself. "I'm not going for records," he said. "The important thing is the honour of wearing the jersey, though for sure I'm still motivated to go for a fifth or sixth title."
Between them, the pair have won ten of the past fourteen global time trial titles, but Martin was gracious in acknowledging that, to this point at least, Cancellara, who retires at season's end, has the upper hand in their longstanding rivalry.
"I think for the moment he has had the bigger victories, with the gold medals in the Olympic Games. For the moment, he's still on top. For sure, right now, he's the man. But I'm not at the end of my career yet," Martin said, and then joked: "I won't miss him as a competitor. But no, he's a great personality and the whole cycling world will miss him."
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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 (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.