It’s an attractive thing, arguably the most we can ask of the man on the bike. For a recent example, cast your mind back to stage 11 of last year’s Tour, and Dan Martin’s pursuit of a breakaway led over the Col d’Aspin by Rafal Majka. Heroic does not seem too strong a word.
Martin racks his brain for a moment. “Oh, that one,” he says, after a moment’s reflection. You might expect such a ride to have left a lasting impression – he pursued Majka a second time, when the young Pole attacked again, this time over the Col du Tourmalet – but the Irishman clearly regards it as just another day in the saddle.
Perhaps it’s the outcome that has made Martin banish the day from his memory (he crossed the line second in Cauterets, exactly one minute behind Majka). He is, after all, a rider of significant pedigree: twice a winner of Monument Classics, twice overall winner of WorldTour stage races, and a stage winner both at the Tour and at La Vuelta.
In truth, Martin is arguably the most underrated of the current crop of Monument winners, but perhaps he himself contributes to this unjust state of affairs. Martin is low key; modest. The explosions come on the bike, rather than off it.
To return to our example, Martin clearly does not categorise second place on a mountainous Tour stage among his greatest hits, but the events of the day return to him, he grows steadily more enthusiastic.
“It was a day that went wrong, and then went right, so I made the most of a bad situation,” he remembers. “The aim was to be in the breakaway after the bad ride that we had the day before.
“I don’t know what came over me. I was talking to somebody, I can’t remember who it was now, and then the next minute, the instinct…” He breaks off.
“It was probably one of the few times last year that I just followed my instincts instead of thinking about the race too much. I just did it.
“I don’t know what I thought would happen, but the team had laid so much on the line that day and we’d missed the breakaway, so I had to try something to pay them back, and it very nearly paid off.
“To come so close to the win was pretty hard, but at the same time, what a day. It’s a day that people remember, which seems to have happened a lot in my career: people remember how I ride, rather than the results.”
Correct. We return to our opening gambit: panache. Martin will not trouble the peloton’s stylists, but he is effective and, yes, instinctive. Who could ask for more?
Not Etixx-Quick Step, who have signed Martin on a two-year contract, seizing the opportunity presented by his departure from Slipstream Sports, with whom he had raced under its various, Garmin-partnered guises since turning pro in 2007.
Martin is clearly impressed by EQS general manager Patrick Lefevere and the group’s mentality, describing it as “the team where I’m going to fulfil my potential.” He has already made an impressive start to life with his new employers, winning the second stage of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
He summarises the transfer from Slipstream as “turning a page” on the incredible bad luck of recent seasons. Falling within 300m of taking back-to-back victories at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, as Martin did in 2014, might have finished a less determined character, but he is nothing if not resilient.
His recruitment might indicate a change of focus for EQS, or, at the very least, a widening. Last season, the Ardennes Classics acted as face-saver for a team that lives and dies by its performances on the cobbles. The acquisition of Martin, however, gives them a new impetus for the Ardennes.
Martin will be supported by two developing talents: Julian Alaphilippe, the 23-year-old whose outstanding campaign last season helped to save Lefevere’s spring, and Bob Jungels, another 23-year-old, who has joined from Trek in the colours of Luxembourg national champion.
“We’re one of the very few teams that can win every one of the Classics. What an achievement that would be, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For me, personally, I’ve had relative success in Flèche Wallonne, and hopefully we can fill in that gap, but we’re going there with an incredibly strong team.
“Julian, myself and Bob are three different riders who can get results. We each have different characteristics, but we complement each other. We can win in different ways; however the race pans out.”
Martin concedes that his appearance in EQS colours will draw a greater presence to the team bus than is normally the case in the second half of spring, but the credibility he will lend to their Ardennes campaign is one of the reasons he has been hired.
“The reason I’m in this team is because I’m a good bike rider and Patrick believes in me, so why not believe in myself?”
We return to our earlier observations: that Martin is seriously underrated and that he sets little store by his own performances. Indeed, even rolling out at Liège as defending champion means nothing once the race has begun, he maintains (“once you clip in and it’s kilometre zero, it’s still just a bike race”). His matter-of-factness is admirable, but offers some clue to his comparatively low profile.
“Maybe you’re asking the wrong person,” he says, when I quiz him on his status. “I’m very quick to forget, and that’s how I keep two feet firmly planted on the ground. Win or lose, once you cross the finish line, you can’t change it. Maybe when I finish my career and look back across what I’ve achieved I will say, ‘Okay, that wasn’t bad’. But for now, I’m still as hungry as ever.”
All that would change, however, were Martin to be crowned Olympic road race champion in October. Asked to describe his dreams for 2016, he answers in two words: “Olympic gold.” Then there is a characteristic chuckle and a modest, if optimistic assessment of his chances.
“It’s realistic, in terms of my capacity as a rider, but it’s a difficult race to read. It’s difficult circumstances always. It’s going to be a nightmare race – a real headache – but that’s the race I’ll think about after the Tour in July.”
The Tour will offer the chance of leadership. At 29, Martin is ready. Lefevere has described him as “the complete rider” and Ettix is approaching the status of complete team. In Marcel Kittel, it has the world’s fastest sprinter and a competent train to lead him, and still the strongest squad for the Northern Classics, despite last year’s debacles.
Can EQS compete in the Grand Tours too, or has Sky especially, and the likes of Astana and Movistar, made the three-week races of summer a matter of specialisation for teams as much as the riders? Martin is not even counting on selection, though one suspects a rare moment of false modesty in this assessment.
“When we’re closer to July, we’ll consider what’s possible. It’s definitely a course that suits me this year, but in this team, it’s not even certain that I’ll be there. Let’s get closer to the race and we’ll see what I can do.”
What Martin can do might turn out to be as significant as those other Ardennes warriors who go to the Tour with stage wins and a high GC placing in mind: the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. Just don’t expect Martin to tell you so. The closest he comes to trumpeting his own talents is to talk about his responsibility to his new employers.
“The legacy this team has – that it’s won all these races, that it’s been such an important factor in the careers of the best riders in the world – you don’t want to let that go. You have a responsibility to continue the trend and that winning legacy.”
He has already begun, winning for the first time in nearly 18 months at the summit of the Alto de Fredes, two weeks after our conversation in Calpe. Perhaps he should take a little time to celebrate his talent, and so encourage others to do the same.