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M-Hotel, Genk, Belgium April 18 2013

“It is something that just says 'go'."

Have you always been like this, Dan?

“When I won a stage of the Vuelta, I attacked at the bottom of the climb. I vividly remember thinking, about thirty seconds later, ‘what the fuck are you doing? What are you doing? Really?’ Then it’s like ‘I’m here now, I might as well continue’. And then it kind of worked out.”

Martin questions the wisdom of the attack and his belonging there with the incredulous inner dialogue that he slips into a dozen times during our interview. “It was the same when I got second in the 2009 Volta a Catalunya. I just attacked. Moments later, I looked behind and I had Valverde and his whole team chasing me. I’m like: ‘What? You serious? You’re a friggin’ second year pro and you just attacked Valverde. Ah well, whatever, I’m here now’. And I rode away. He didn’t catch me so… It’s worked out a few times like that, my instinct, but then it’s lost me a lot of races as well. Heart on my sleeve.”

The sleeve in question looks a little silly today because Dan Martin is wearing a black puffer jacket. Maybe it’s because my sisters used to wear them when they were ten years old, or because it inflates his torso incongruously like a bulky, black Michelin man. Fausto Coppi wouldn’t have been seen dead in it.

But I do see a lot of Coppi in Dan Martin. That long nose; the angular, distinctive features; the deceptive, gangly frame; the confidence and once-in-a-generation talent to execute his audacious grand designs. So what if he lacks the gliding souplesse which launched a thousand elegies?

He’s a killer, Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters says. When the last mountain punches through the cloud cover into the heavens, the place where rivals will later send unanswered prayers for mercy, Dan Martin hovers with menace and mystery, tracking ailing victims. When his innate tactical intelligence intersects with that involuntary "go" moment, he swoops. Birds of prey don’t hunt in packs, and he has a vulture’s bloodlust in his eyes and a smile on his face when talking about causing carnage in a bike race. It makes him one of cycling’s most feared finisseurs.

In person, he can be as direct as those attacks too, what he later calls his “frank-heartedness”. Dan will say if he likes it just so or disagrees. Sat in the lobby of a Belgian hotel in the similarly midweek void of the Ardennes classics, we don’t start the interview in earnest until we move because the sun is in his eyes.

It’s his ride that sealed the victory at the [2013] Volta a Catalunya that blinds me. In terms of prestige, the success has been gazumped by bigger beasts that year alone, but it ought to be remembered. It showed the kind of inventiveness and brazen audacity that I thought had long been consigned to the back of cycling’s wardrobe to collect mothballs alongside hairnet helmets, woollen shorts and, well, puffer jackets.

Forty kilometres into the race’s decisive stage, Martin moved to the front for the technical descent of a small climb. He thought the race might split. He was right. When team-mate Ryder Hesjedal saw him in the sizeable leading group, he said “It’s go time” and put himself at Martin’s disposal.

Martin runs through, not just what happened, but why it helped him win: the ease of descending and holding position in a small group, his disbelief at the growing gap, his unerring focus. Racing on adopted home roads, he knew to push hard at the steep bottom half of the finishing climb to Port Ainé so that he could hold on by the snow banks at the top, 170 kilometres after first nudging away. "That type of epic stage has always been something that I admired, but never been confident enough to attempt,” Martin reflects.

Does he feel tactics are becoming more systematic in modern cycling? “To win, you have to risk losing. And people aren’t willing to take that risk anymore. The way the WorldTour points work doesn’t promote risk. It’s better to finish fourth or fifth than to try and win and finish eleventh, you know?

“That’s why I think this team fits me so well. We’re human, we’re flawed. We fuck up sometimes, you know? But when we do win, it’s spectacular. Like Ryder at the Giro last year. Who would have predicted that? We’ve become one of the best teams in the world but we’ve still got this underdog status somehow, and people are still so surprised and love it when we win. I think it’s because of how we win. It’s that fallibility of our wins, it’s, er… yeah, I don’t know how to put it.”

It’s a rare trailing off. Usually, when my question emerges, Martin’s brain clicks into gear as if shifted by Di2. The responses come articulately and fast, at times seeming automatic. In some cases, he’s probably been asked a similar version before. Others, he’s thought so quickly it’s as if he’s read my mind. Words spill from his mouth, picking up speed like a bicycle down a steep descent. My note-writing fingers soon ache from trying to keep up.

He is happily ensconced in one-day race mode after finishing fourth at the Flèche Wallonne. Martin prefers the parity of the hilly Classics – one chance, everything out, an irreversible (risk-favouring) win or lose outcome – to the hors catégorie mountains. “Probably because there’s a lot more adrenaline involved, whereas these long climbs are just a slugfest, sitting there, grinding away. Whereas these [shorter] climbs, there’s so much excitement, so many people on the side of the road.”

He’s only targeted a Grand Tour classification result once, at the 2011 Vuelta, when a misplaced rib affected his performance. "It’s going to be interesting when I start having a go at them but I’ll be honest: they’re hard. I don’t really like them at the moment. You get tired, you get really tired. In a one-week race, it’s strange to say, but you don’t have that same feeling." He made his long-awaited Tour de France debut last year, harbouring a broken shoulder from a Dauphiné crash.

There was another unforeseen difficulty too. “It was hard psychologically because I went into it with no expectation. And that was a bit frustrating. The team basically said ‘Look, we don’t want you to ride GC’. You don’t care every day. I didn’t realise how much that was going to affect me."

However, the contemporary Grand Tour challenger’s need for concealment and plodding conservatism doesn’t suit a man who is less minded to think of the next day. Playing that long game is something for the long term.

In the meantime, everyone wants a piece of the Volta victor. He’s getting stopped around Girona by locals and has a forthcoming ceremony with the mayor. We part company, agreeing to meet in his hometown soon.

April 21 2013

Morning in the Place Saint-Lambert, the slate-coloured heart of dreary Liège. The start of the race approaches. Dan Martin tells team-mate Nathan Haas to listen to this great song playing over the speakers. The joke’s on him because it’s ‘90s technobilly terrors Cartoons. Cue 258 kilometres of ‘ooh-ee-ooh-aah-aah ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang’ banging around the poor Australian domestique’s head. Liège-Bastogne-Liège is painful enough without additional mental torture.

Martin is ridiculously relaxed. He spends the first few hours making jokes and funny observations while rolling along in the bunch. The finale passes in a state of Zen slow-motion for him. The lead weights are loosened on the Côte de Saint Nicholas, to his surprise.

“Okay, what’s happening here?” his inner dialogue recalls dreamily.

He’s never felt this strong in the dénouement before. He is a bit too calm and lets Joaquim Rodríguez take flight. Under the flamme rouge, Martin begins to think second place isn’t so bad. Then the gap closes. A nutter in a panda suit pounds the tarmac behind him. Martin waits for the very moment that Rodríguez looks ahead rather than circumspectly behind. In that split second, he swoops.

As soon as he crosses the line, mirroring the salute of the comedy panda a minute earlier, time accelerates. For the victor, the spoils: podium, anti-doping, press conference. And the Ryanair flight back to Girona... When Dan wins, everyone knows his parents will be at the local Irish pub, celebrating with a few glasses of Cava.

Neil Martin’s phone buzzed as the clock pushed eleven; it’s a text message from Dan. He’s back.

“Dan says ‘Where are you?’ I go ‘in the pub’. Dan replies: ‘I’ll wander down then’.

“He came through the door and… it sounds like a cliché, really cliché, but our eyes met and it was 30 seconds of not saying anything. Wow. Wowee. His mum was in tears. And he’s shaking his head saying ‘I can’t believe I’ve just done that’.”

Girona, August 16 2013

Several of Dan’s old jerseys hang on the wall of the Bike Breaks shop. In the front corner, sunlight falls on a shredded number from the 2012 Dauphiné, the broken shoulder edition. The back is torn where a chainring went over him. We’re cheerfully informed by the owner Saskia that there’s some blood on there, but it doesn’t belong to Dan.

His parents recline on the brown sofa. Neil Martin has been there, done it, got the jerseys. He was an Olympian and leading British ‘80s amateur who raced on the continent with ACBB and in Luxembourg. They smile and share their memories.

Almost 27 years ago to the day, Daniel Martin was born, a jaundiced, five-week premature bundle. Those few weeks made a big difference: they narrowly put him into the 1985-86 school year. Martin’s been ahead of the curve ever since. It meant he could finish studies a year early, chase his dream in France while still a teenager and turn professional a year earlier. But the early arrival made him sick too. As a kid, he had asthma and a heavy cough, necessitating several hospital trips to be put on a nebuliser.

Illness didn’t stop him. The Martins were an outdoorsy family. After Neil took a sabbatical from racing in the early ‘90s and moved onto selling motorcycling equipment around the country, they would take the children into the paddock of local MotoGP and Superbike races. Summer holidays were timed to catch the passage of the Tour de France in the Alps or Pyrenees. Neil and Dan would go on early morning rides up and down the mountain before the roads closed.

The only time everything stopped was when cycling was on the box. Maria recalls a young Daniel watching races analytically, saying to himself “I need to do this, this and this.”  

“Dan is super-intelligent, I always said too intelligent to ride a bike. He maybe thinks about it too much,” Neil says. He remembers him as more measured and studious than his younger brother Tom.

An hour later, we meet Dan, back from a long training ride. Life has been crazy for him since Liège. He’s barely had any time back home. When I tell him I’ve met the parents, faux horror mixes with a smile. “So you’ve heard everything then,” he says.

Martin reckons his studiousness was a thin disguise. “Academia was more an outlet for my competitiveness. Any time I wasn’t top of the class, I’d be really pissed off.” Ever ahead of the curve, Dan worked out that he could get his homework done either in free periods or on the 30-minute bus ride from his home in Tamworth to St Francis of Assisi Technology College in Aldridge, just north of Birmingham.

History was his favourite subject; Dan claims he finished in the top .01 per cent of the country in the A-Level exam. “Because I didn’t have to study; I’d write it down and it frickin’ sticks in my head. I read through my notes before the exam: done,” Martin says.

Dan wasn’t serious about cycling until his mid-teens. “I started cycling more as a way of spending time with dad because I didn’t see him that much because of work,” he says. Would he try and outsprint him occasionally? “No, there was never any of that. I was competitive in that I wouldn’t let go. It’s the same as I am now, I never go out and half-wheel somebody to death [in training].

“I had that attitude since I was a junior. I didn’t need to drop everybody on a climb to show them all how strong I was. It’s more for keeping that mystery, so that [in a race] everybody’s thinking ‘Fuck! He could drop us at any moment’.”

He speaks with a light Midlands burr, but Dan and England didn’t go together. It was a “convenience”, good for school and junior series racing. His mother is Irish, his father knew most of the staff of Cycling Ireland and they kept asking about Dan. Soon after turning 19, the oldest son opted to change nationality. 

“It was brewing. I rode for the British team in 2005 and it was becoming apparent that I was an outsider. I thought I deserved to be at the World Championships in Madrid. I was going better than most of the team; I’d done one race with them and been head and shoulders above the rest. And then they didn’t even call me to tell me I wasn’t selected.

“Wait a minute, there’s a bit of lack of respect going on here. Then you’ve got this nation begging me to be Irish. Do you want to work with people who really want to work with you or…” He lets the unspoken answer hang. “It’s kind of the same with Jonathan [Vaughters]. It’s a nice feeling, you know they’re a lot more likely to put effort in than somebody who takes you for granted.” And so Dan Martin ended up being the one that got away for British Cycling.

His antipathy runs deeper than just towards two wheels. Martin used to enjoy seeing England lose at sport: “The anticipation of the big result all the time… I found it quite amusing to see failure. It’s the same here [in Spain]. Everyone gets so excited, it’s funny when they lose. The stupid little plastic flags on people’s cars, this pseudo-patriotism that’s… I always love to see it fall on its face. It’s more that attitude than a dislike of the England football team.” Ironically, Catalan flags flap in the breeze from many windows in Girona; one is visible from the café table where we sit. They’ve got an excuse: the region has a referendum for independence approaching. 

Irish passport in hand, Martin replaced his cousin Nicolas Roche – departing to turn professional with Cofidis – at VC La Pomme. Let’s linger here to clarify a point: Daniel is Stephen Roche’s nephew, which tempts the image of an Irish legend whispering the secrets of cycling greatness into his willing young relation’s ears. In truth, there was no advice and barely any contact. Stephen was in France, Dan in England.

Dan’s new life started on a freezing January night in 2005 when he arrived at the decrepit La Pomme team house in the Marseille outpost of Aubagne. When Neil saw the place, he refused to let Maria go in. It was basic digs; the bedroom was intended for three but often accommodated six. The first thing he did was go and buy Dan a mattress, his final act in preparing his son for the similar crap that he’d gone through in cycling’s little-changing school of hard knocks.

That first night, the shutters banged around in a bitter storm. “What the hell have I let myself in for?” Dan thought. He clung to his rigid self-belief: “I will be there, I’ll start winning races and then turn pro, no question.” In the following months, some of the team’s French riders started rumours that Dan was doping, that they’d seen it when sharing rooms with him.

“Whether it was jealousy or whatever, it was like they were testing me with bad treatment, to see what I was made of,” he says, fingers playing with a splinter of wood from the café table. On occasions, he’d get flicked from a race line-up when a Frenchman wanted in.

When he did ride, Martin’s results were below par. He was unaware at the time that allergies were acting as invisible brakes. Typically proactive, Martin was the one who self-diagnosed his problem in 2011 by matching his symptoms with the specific pollen counts on certain days, before confirming it with a specialist later. He had to persuade the La Pomme management to give him a ride for year two; once there, he ignited the big U23 races.

Jonathan Vaughters called to offer him a contract for 2007 on his new team. Thanks, but no thanks, Martin said. “I’d only just started being comfortable in races, not just hanging on… I wanted to learn how to win races again and get the composure I still have to this day,” he reflects.

Vaughters got his man the following year. Martin arrived in the Colorado city of Boulder for the first Garmin training camp not knowing a single team member. As soon as the pace got toasty on the first training ride, he dropped back. “Everyone was like ‘are you okay?’ I was like ‘I’m fine, but I don’t want to go that hard, it’s January’. I just did my own thing. Everyone was racing up these climbs – it’s still the same now. I’ve got my plan, I’m going to ride at my own tempo.”

That’s Martin’s emotional maturity for you. He weighs everything up, above peer pressure or cycling tradition, and falls on what will be best for him. He’d rather be right and slightly different than follow a knackered norm.

“I hold my hands up: I don’t train a lot, but I train frickin’ hard when I do. I think it is a confidence thing as well. I was talking to Nathan [Haas] today, he was saying ‘I’m feeling really tired now’. I told him ‘have a holiday, have four weeks off’. People are astonished when they hear how long I’m off the bike in the winter.”

Martin has just had a brief post-Tour break too after sickness depleted his powers in France. Before the last few stages, he sent a text to his parents, doubtful about finishing. Around team-mates, he never let on how sick he was, cracking jokes then coughing his lungs up in the back of the bus. No point in affecting morale.

“I was counting every kilometre, every pedal stroke on the Alpe d’Huez and Glandon stages. Even the last day, I was literally counting every metre of road. It’s something that’s gonna make me stronger in the future, but I was not in a good way at all.

“Our directeur sportif Charly Wegelius told me at the finish – I almost agree with him – that he was prouder of me for finishing the Tour than winning the stage." Stage nine, Martin’s lucky number. The finisseur coolly knew how to play breakaway companion Jakob Fuglsang in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, rounding off a day when Garmin had chucked the stale status quo of Tour racing into the bin. A big turning point in your season too, even your career, Dan…

“I wouldn’t say that, but yeah,” Martin interrupts defiantly. “Another box ticked, maybe,” he smiles. Possessing the supreme confidence that big victories provide, he is no longer so surprised when his attacks succeed. And his hunger [for success] is unstinting.

He’s literally ravenous too. With a metabolism that would make a supermodel jealous, Martin has to take a cold shower most nights as his body sizzles. He’ll have dinner at ten and need a bowl of cereal at midnight. At six, he’ll wake up, starving again.

As the waitress begins to set out cutlery for dinner, I wonder if his view of Grand Tour challenging, the big nut he has yet to crack, has changed since our April chat. “It has because I saw that I’m capable of racing hard and attacking every day [at the Tour]. Psychologically, I think I’m more mature.”

“But the conservative style of racing does annoy me. Everyone’s so concentrated. The day I won, Belkin were chasing behind. The first week of the Tour and they’re already riding to stop me gaining thirty seconds on potential sixth or seventh overall. It’s like, ‘really? You can’t just try and win the bike race?’”

The rider accompanies our photographer to the steps of the Basílica Parroquial de Sant Feliu . He had returned from training earlier dressed in Nike clothes, no doubt part of some commercial deal, but they don’t fit his image. He’s not a conforming, billboard athlete, and I’m glad. After our chat, Dan’s off to spend some time with his brother and niece. Normality anchors him. 

He lives for racing his bike, yet he can see full well how absurd this sport can be with an outsider’s eye. So, sometimes in the heat of the race, he suffers attacks of a different nature.

“When you’re fighting for position, sometimes you just start laughing because this is completely stupid. What the hell are we doing?" The inner dialogue again. “Crazy. This is so, so dangerous, what the hell am I doing?”

But he’s smiling broadly with the memory. Because this life makes him happy, because he belongs among the fighting and flying.

This was originally published in issue 42 of Rouleur in September 2013.

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