In an unassuming hotel conference room on the Swiss-lying shoreline of Lake Constance, an unassuming world champion cyclist stands on a makeshift gurney in a state of partial undress.
With unfailing patience he submits himself, like an artist’s life model, to a series of contortions for a 1 photo shoot.
The pale morning sunlight flits across the surface of the shimmering water outside and illuminates the room. It plays on the scars that fleck Tony Martin’s legs and arms, giving each an evanescent lustre which is swiftly extinguished as clouds roll past overhead.
Glassy welt marks, nicks and lacerations pepper his skin; the professional cyclist’s badges of combat. Fresher wounds, barely healed, are reminders of a past season lived dangerously. Old and new scars combine to create a body map of bad luck.
A few hours earlier Martin had strolled into the foyer of our meeting place – the Twin Peaks-style Seehotel Schiff in the sleepy hamlet of Mannenbach – dressed in a hooded top, jeans and Converse, fresh off the plane from China after successfully defending his Tour of Beijing title amid outbreaks of Tony-mania.
“I’m famous over there,” he says. “People wait for me in the hall of the hotel to give me gifts and tell me I’m great!”
A boyish-looking 27, he is instantly friendly and engaging but with a shy demeanour. As we talk he rarely makes eye contact and often delivers answers with a fragile, deadpan expression reminiscent of a young Buster Keaton.
Since he is nothing but honest and thoughtful, both in conversation and in his everyday life, it seems entirely apposite that his forte as a cyclist is the race of truth.
“I want to be effective and do things the best, most efficient way I can,” he tells me.
Our conversation veers from the outrageous misfortune that befell Martin in his debut season with Omega Pharma–Quick-Step to his preference for training alone (“It’s a waste of time for me to just sit in someone’s slipstream in a group, talking”) and his obsession with planning his own training routes (“Yes, I’m a control freak!”); why he won’t ride in the spring classics (“It’s too dangerous and I hate cobbles!”); and how, during big stage races, he has a penchant for watching DVD box sets of fast-paced TV thriller 24 in his hotel room, to switch his mind off from cycling and escape into another world.
On the titanic hoo-ha surrounding the Lance Armstrong scandal, he offers: “It’s good that all this stuff came out and now hopefully the doping rumours will end and we can move on with a clean sport.”
Trust is a word that crops up frequently during our conversation; that and a sense of constancy becoming something of a recurring theme.
Intensely private – it is notable that we meet just a stone’s throw from his Mannenbach abode – Martin thrives on cosy familiarity and is averse to change.
It’s the reason he’s kept the same close knit group around him since he was a kid; an inner circle consisting of his girlfriend Katharina, his family, and old friends from his time at sports college in Erfurt.
These are the people he can rely on, those who have always been there for him. “It’s hard for other people to get into this circle,” he tells me. “I can trust these guys and be myself with them.”
It’s why – when Bob Stapleton gathered Team HTC-Highroad to say that he’d failed to find a new sponsor and that the squad would fold at the end of the 2011 season – Martin found it felt “like there had been a death in the family”.
He’d spent his entire fledgling pro career with the various incarnations of the American entrepreneur’s hugely successful team, formed from the embers of T-Mobile’s dope ridden demise.
“For four years I had the same people around me, people I could trust,” he says, that word popping up again. “I’m the kind of guy who gets used to having the same thing. I want it, I need it. It is a comfort for me.”
Following Martin’s stellar final season at HTC-Highroad – 12 victories; nine of them in time trials, including his first Grand Tour stage win at the Tour de France and a majestic first World TT win in which he destroyed Cancellara, Wiggins et al – he was a highly sought after prize, swiftly snapped up by Patrick Lefevere for his under performing Belgian classics outfit, Omega Pharma–Quick-Step.
Expectations were high but Martin took time to adjust to his new environment; the change was anathema to him.
Poor early season form – particularly at Paris-Nice after a “shit winter” – was followed by a string of bad luck, crashes, injuries and illness. More of that later…
Thankfully new team-mate Tom Boonen stepped up to the plate to wage one of the greatest ever cobbled classics campaigns, with victory at E3, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and, most memorable of all, a swashbuckling 49km solo attack to win Paris-Roubaix.
It was a huge relief, Martin admits. “It took the pressure off me.”
“But I’m really happy I had these difficult lessons to learn throughout all the ups and downs,” he continues. “And with the big success at the end at least it wasn’t a wasted year.”
After almost perfect preparation at the Vuelta a España, he went to Valkenburg to defend his World Championship time trial crown in near 100 per cent condition for the first time all season.
In the absence of Fabian Cancellara or Bradley Wiggins, the attention was all on the German “machine”, as Boonen had called him after Omega Pharma–Quick-Step’s team time trial success in the Vuelta three days before.
Martin was the outstanding favourite to retain the title he’d won in such devastating style a year before, in Copenhagen.
He should have been brimming with confidence but instead he was feeling the heat, unsure of his form with no big time trial wins all season, a poor 11th place on stage 11 of the Vuelta the most recent disappointment.
Waiting on the start ramp, he tells me, he was fretting that it might all go horribly wrong.
Watching on TV as the camera closed in on his face and he took a final sip of water before rolling off, I remember thinking that he seemed to be almost shaking.
“It was such a memorable race,” Martin says, now able to relax. “Taylor Phinney was amazing and the finish was fantastic, so everyone will remember it in 10 years’ time.”
He’s right. It was a vivid, gripping denouement to a thrilling race.
I can still picture the breathtaking moment when the German catches his two minute man, Alberto Contador, and slaloms past the Spaniard as if he were some stationary object on the road – a human-shaped bollard on a bike – rather than the reigning Vuelta champion.
Incredibly there were 15km still to race. With Contador wiped out in ignominious fashion, Martin now only had to quash the youthful insurgency of American contre la montre prodigy Phinney, who’d set a blistering time round the rolling Limburg course.
When Martin swung onto the dreaded final 1.2km ascent of the Cauberg, the Amstel Gold Race’s iconic hill finish, he had seven seconds on the 22-year-old.
The German would have to empty it up the climb in less than 1:20 to snatch gold from Phinney’s grasp and salvage a calamitous season.
Martin started talking to himself – “Come on, only 1km to go!” – visualising those long, lonely hours out on the road whatever the weather; the time and energy and effort he’d invested over the past two months preparing for the race.
The scary training crash, the broken wrist, all that dreadful bad luck. This is what it’s all been for.
He urged himself to push harder, through the pain barrier and beyond.
“The fact it’s the World Championships is an enormous motivating factor alone,” Martin says. “I couldn’t look myself in the mirror if I knew I hadn’t given everything.”
There followed a mad, frantic dash to the summit with a vicious headwind battering his face, mouth agape, gasping for air like a landed fish, turning a massive gear and riding as if through a river of treacle on a concrete bike, with legs like flaming torches.
“I was dead in the last 300m,” he says. “You can’t imagine how far 300m can seem after an hour of that kind of effort.
“Going up the Cauberg I was sprinting flat out and my legs were full of lactic acid but I had to keep going. It was the longest 1,000m of my career.”
But he made it, a mere 5.37 seconds faster than Phinney, and crossed the line brandishing a symbolic salute: two in a row. Copenhagen 2011, now Valkenburg 2012.
He stepped off his bike like a drunk alighting a fairground ride and collapsed exhausted on the tarmac.
“After a few minutes I thought, okay, time to get up and enjoy it,” he says, smiling now at the memory.
“It was such a huge relief after everything I’d been through in 2012, breaking my wrist at the Tour and, of course, the training crash.”
It was a Wednesday morning training run like any other. A soft, mist-like April smirr enveloped the undulating Seerücken hills overlooking Lake Constance as Martin wound his way down the terraced slopes towards home after a satisfying four-hour workout.
He was just back from the Tour of the Basque Country and a morale boosting display in the final stage time trial in Oñati, on a challenging mountainous course where he finished third behind race winner Sammy Sánchez.
With the Tour de Romandie up next, where he’d finished second overall the previous season, he began to feel “at last some proof that my form was better and I was in good shape for the coming races.”
Three kilometres from Mannenbach he swung across a main road onto a cycle path that skirts the hemline of the lake and was brought to a sudden, shuddering halt.
“I don’t remember anything, but the police said when the car came out of the small side road and over the bike lane I crashed into the side of it,” Martin explains.
“The driver didn’t see me – my black rain jacket didn’t help. I went from 35km/h to zero in an instant. And then the lights went out.”
He lost consciousness for about a quarter of an hour. When he came to, with emergency services standing over him, he thought he’d woken from a hyper-realistic nightmare. He fought to stand up, telling them:
“No, no, I’m okay, just let me go,” the instinct of a pro cyclist to immediately jump back on their bike and rejoin the race.
When they told him it was serious, he “stopped fighting and trusted them.”
He was taken to a local hospital and then transferred to the University Clinic in Zürich. The left half of his face was badly smashed. He’d fractured his cheekbone, jaw, shoulder blade and eye socket in the horrific collision.
But, Martin tells me, it could have been a whole lot worse.
“It was good that I landed on my left side and not face first,” he says. “I’ve had so many crashes as a pro that I automatically curled up and prepared myself for the crash in less than a second.”
I ask if he felt emotional in the days following his brush with death?
“You always hear about such crashes that happen to other people but you don’t think it will happen to you,” he answers. “But then it happens to you.
“If I’d been going five kph faster, or if I’d hit the car straight on, or if I wasn’t wearing a helmet…” he says, trailing off, the silent ellipsis expressing his feelings more than words ever could.
Miraculously, after only one week indoors with his bike on a home trainer, he was back doing light training on the road.
Within three weeks he was fit enough to return to racing and by the end of May had finally notched his first win of the season in the stage four time trial at the Tour of Belgium, propelling him to overall victory.
But the hex returned at the Dauphiné Libéré in June, when he hit the deck on stage three and was diagnosed with a blood infection.
He somehow recovered the next day to run a rampant Wiggins close in the 53km time trial, but on the penultimate day cracked on the climb up the Joux Plane to blow a tilt at the overall.
No matter. Every race – even the upcoming Tour de France, starting in Belgium – was serving only as preparation for Martin’s sole aim for the season, the London Olympics.
Yes, he aimed to take the maillot jaune in the prologue and then go for stage wins on the two long time trials but there was no point, he says, “trying to get into the top five at the Tour and then be exhausted for the Games.”
His hopes were dashed again when he punctured before the first time check of the 6.4km circuit of Liège, to finish a horribly disappointing 45th.
“I thought it really can’t get any worse,” he says.
But it did – a mere 24 hours later on the first stage proper, and just 11km out of Liège. With the breakaway group of the day already gone and the peloton ambling along the road to Seraing, Robbie Hunter hit a pothole, lost hold of his handlebars and went flying.
Martin, on the South African’s wheel, tumbled over the Garmin-Sharp rider. He “immediately knew something was badly wrong.”
Dangling off the back of the field all day in agony, he bravely limped to the finish. A hospital X-ray confirmed the crushing news: a fracture of the cashew-nut-sized scaphoid bone in his left wrist. His Tour was over.
But Martin refused to go home. “I wanted to stay until the first long time trial,” he explains. “I also wanted to support the team.
“If I’d just quit then, it would have been a disaster for team morale. I thought we could find a way to protect the wrist. Why not at least try?”
And so he soldiered on for another week to Arc-et-Senans for stage nine’s time trial. He cut a sorry figure on the start ramp, his wrist encased in a plastic cast, but despite another flat tyre in the first few kilometres still managed an admirable 12th place.
It was the end of one race and the beginning of another: he had only three weeks to get fit for the Olympic time trial.
“As a kid I remember watching the Olympics on TV,” he says. “And I dreamed that one day I could participate and maybe even win a medal.”
Tony Martin was born on April 23 1985, in Cottbus, a small university city 130km south east of Berlin, close to the border with Poland.
He was the middle child of three boys born to Bettina and Karsten, a doctor and local government worker in the former German Democratic Republic.
The Berlin Wall still stood, proud and ugly, dividing east from west. But by Tony’s fourth birthday rumblings of discontent over the oppressive communist system could already be heard across eastern Europe, in Poland, the Baltic states and Hungary.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s principles of Glasnost and Perestroika had captured the popular imagination. The first heady whiffs of revolution were in the air.
On May 2, 1989 the Hungarian government astonished the world by beginning to dismantle their hitherto fortified border with Austria.
The results were sensational: by July more than 25,000 East Germans who had decided to ‘holiday’ in Hungary somehow ended up in Austria.
Dramatically, the Martin family was among the exodus.
“My parents really wanted to get out of the system,” their middle son explains. “They were individuals, with their own thoughts and ideas about life, similar to the way I am now, but that wasn’t possible in the old GDR.”
During that heady summer of 1989, Martin’s father obtained a family travel visa and Tony, older brother Gerrit, younger brother Paul, mum and dad, took off in the family Trabant on a spurious grape picking trip in the vineyards of Hungary.
Packing only what they needed for the ‘holiday’, Karsten and Bettina left behind their life possessions in Cottbus to seek “a new, better life for themselves and their family in the west.”
They made it to West Germany, via Hungary and Austria, spending their first few months of freedom in special refugee camps before settling in the Frankfurt area.
There, with the help of generous locals, Bettina and Karsten soon found jobs and a new family home.
“The whole operation was pretty dangerous,” Martin admits. “But my parents had such a strong will, they were single-minded people and wanted to make their own way in the world.”
It’s clear he has inherited many of the same traits which led his mum and dad to embark on their perilous journey all those years ago.
“Being told what to do is against my nature,” he tells me. This wilful, singular approach to his life and career has helped him not only survive but flourish in the rough and tumble world of professional cycling. He is a chip off the old block.
His son explains that, as a talented young cyclist, Karsten Martin fell foul of the East German sports system thanks to a maverick streak. The authorities didn’t appreciate outsiders with Adidas sports bags, a West German brand.
“He was fed up with the system so quit cycling, but he passed on his love of the sport to me,” Martin says.
The pair watched the Tour de France together on TV. A young German rider, Jan Ullrich, had exploded onto the scene, finishing second at the 1996 Tour, then winning it the following year at the tender age of 23. Germany, and Martin, had a new hero.
Although a talented youth footballer, by the age of 14 Martin realised he didn’t have “the kind of technique needed to make it as a pro”, so he switched sports to cycling.
The old fashioned GDR training methods his father had rebelled against now proved invaluable as he became his son’s coach and training partner.
Karsten’s philosophy, Martin remembers now, was distinctly archaic but nevertheless effective: go out and ride every day, come rain, hail or shine.
Unable to juggle an increasingly busy weekend junior racing schedule with regular school work, Martin took up a sports scholarship at a specialist college in Erfurt, ironically a city in the former eastern part of Germany.
“It was the best decision of my life. Everything was better organised, I had more time for cycling and I also found my people,” he says, referring to the gang of friends he bonded with in Erfurt.
After dazzling at junior level – by 2003 he was German national U19 time trial champion and finished eighth at the junior World Championships in Hamilton, Canada – he soon progressed to the under-23 ranks with the Thüringer Energie Team.
His Erfurt neighbour Sebastian Lang secured the 20-year-old Martin a stagiaire contract with Gerolsteiner and he made a huge splash at the 2005 Regio Tour, his first professional race, winning the individual time trial.
“It was the surprise of the season,” he says. “Suddenly everyone was looking at me as the new Jan Ullrich.”
Contract offers rolled in from Gerolsteiner and the perennial giants of German cycling, T-Mobile.
He chose the latter because they allowed him to defer his pro debut until he’d completed the final two years of his sports scholarship.
Although desperate to turn pro (“What if it was my only chance? What if I got injured?”), Martin followed sage family advice to finish his studies – which included training to be a policeman as a back up if he didn’t make it as a professional cyclist – and stayed with the under-23s for another couple of seasons.
Ironically, but for Martin’s dedication to his police education, 2006 would have been his rookie season among the cycling elite. It was a bleak year for the sport, with Operación Puerto rearing its ugly head.
Childhood idol Ullrich – implicated in the scandal, barred from that year’s Tour and subsequently sacked by T-Mobile – would have been one of Martin’s new team-mates.
The eager young police academy graduate would have found himself in the middle of a doping shit storm.
After further doping revelations from several T-Mobile riders, most notably Erik Zabel and Bjarne Riis, the sport’s reputation in Martin’s homeland was in tatters. Something had to give.
German TV withdrew coverage of the 2007 Tour and later that year T-Mobile pulled the plug on their long-running sponsorship deal.
The following season, amid more scandal, the Deutschland Tour was scrapped and Gerolsteiner dissolved after they couldn’t find a new sponsor.
“I don’t know if I would have had the same career in cycling if I’d started a few seasons earlier,” Martin muses now. “Perhaps the doping scandals at T-Mobile would have put me off.”
Despite T-Mobile’s collapse Martin’s original contract still stood, though the man who had defined its terms, Olaf Ludwig, left the team at the end of 2006.
“It was still a team,” he says, “just with no sponsor.”
When the squad morphed into Stapleton’s Team Highroad for Martin’s debut 2008 season, it was the beginning of a “beautiful four-year relationship.”
“It was a hard time for cycling. No-one knew how we could continue or even if we would continue,” he says. “We were just fighting for success, survival, sponsors.”
“But it was also great timing for me to come to cycling after all the doping shit. I arrived just in time – I was a new, young, clean rider.”
It was during his debut Tour de France in 2009 that Martin made the first giant leap of his pro career, in a ding-dong battle with Juan Manuel Gárate on the lunar slopes of Mont Ventoux.
The fresh-faced 24-year-old had donned the maillot blanc as best young rider for the first two weeks. Now here he was, supposedly a time trial specialist, mixing it up on one of the Tour’s fabled peaks with an old Spanish mountain goat.
Gárate surged past Martin on the final bend of the iconic climb to claim the stage, but it was the young German who took the plaudits.
Everyone assumed he was Germany’s next Grand Tour winner – a new generation Ullrich – but, crucially for the future of German cycling, clean.
“I think we’re asking a little bit too much of him to save German cycling,” Martin’s directeur sportif Rolf Aldag said at the end of the opening week of that Tour.
Nearly four years on, does he still feel that weight of expectation?
“Everybody knows about the situation in Germany where everyone is very down on cycling,” he begins. “I think it’s getting better every year but it’s not where it should be.
“I hope I can inspire people, from both generations: the older ones who were watching when Ullrich was fighting for the Tour title and also the younger ones who are looking for motivation for the future.”
And does he still harbour ambitions to go for the GC at a Grand Tour?
“Yes, it is still a goal for the future,” he confirms. “But I tried and the best result I had was the first year, when I was young and there was no pressure.
“Then I tried again in 2010 and 2011 and it was really disappointing.”
It depends on the parcours since, by his own admission, he still struggles on long, steep climbs.
For now he prefers to rack up time trial wins, establish himself as the pre-eminent rider of his generation against the clock and aim for smaller, one-week stage race wins. There will come a time to establish new goals, perhaps in his 30s.
“The time trial is my discipline,” he begins, agreeing it suits his lone wolf personality. “I love it because you’re alone on the road with your bike.
“There’s no slipstream, no tactics, it’s not about who has the smartest strategy. It’s just you, your bike and your head, fighting against the pain.”
Outside, a frozen mist hovers over Lake Constance like dry ice on a night club dance floor. Even at noon the sun is low in the sky, hanging over the hills south west towards St Gallen and casting our little conference room in shadow once more.
When I ask Martin to choose the highlight of his career so far he becomes suddenly animated and blurts out immediately “the Olympics in London.”
“The atmosphere was gigantic,” he says. “It made the Tour de France seem like a kindergarten. Along the entire course the crowds were three or four deep – it was like cycling through a tunnel of noise.”
Reaching the start ramp at Hampton Court on the first day of August had always been the main focus of Martin’s season. He was determined to fulfil his childhood ambition and, at the same time, hopefully restore some faith in German cycling at home.
“If you win a medal at the Olympic Games you can reach a lot of people,” Martin says. “I was aware of this opportunity and I was hoping I could win a medal for Germany and help bring fans back to cycling who were gone.”
In the end he had to settle for silver behind an indomitable Wiggins. But it was still an incredible achievement, given he was still nursing a broken wrist and was lucky just to be there.
“I had to be realistic and celebrate second place,” he says. “Wiggins was unbeatable. So I was very happy with the silver medal and I got a lot of positive reaction
You could say job very well done – an Olympic silver medal on his palmarès, cycling back in the German public’s consciousness for the right reasons.
But it was painful, Martin confesses, to concede his place as cycling’s top chrono man to the British rider. Oh well, there was always a World Championship TT title to defend in Valkenburg…
A few weeks later I catch up with Martin on the phone. The off season is getting shorter, he grumbles. Time has flown by.
He’s been hanging out with friends in Erfurt and family in Frankfurt, relaxing at home with Katharina.
He jogged a little and went on a few lazy, one-hour café rides – compatriots Bert Grabsch, Marcus Burghardt and Andreas Klöden all live around the lake.
After the myriad calamities of 2012, I say, he should be spending the winter in total hibernation, wrapped in cotton wool.
If only. Martin joined his Belgian buddies on an intense two-day team building trip to a military base in the Slovakian wilderness, a tough introduction.
Obstacle courses in freezing rain and mud, night time orienteering escapades, and sleeping under the stars in bivouac shelters.
It wasn’t his idea of fun. He is much happier on the balmy Balearic island of Majorca, where the team was heading next for the annual winter training camp.
In Slovakia Martin was reunited with his former HTC-Highroad team-mate Mark Cavendish, following the Manx sprinter’s recent flit from Team Sky.
Martin tells me a sweet story about how Cavendish nearly had him in tears after gifting him a Tag Heuer watch, a heartfelt thank you for his lead out role in Cav’s first ever Grand Tour stage win at the 2008 Giro d’Italia.
“Mark is a great guy to have around with a big personality and one of the best captains I have ever ridden with,” Martin enthuses.
“When you have him in the team it inspires you to give 100 per cent because you know he’ll give the same back.”
We chat about how the trials of 2012 have helped him mature on and off the bike.
“I think the last year was a character building experience and it has definitely helped me to be more relaxed, more realistic,” he says.
“Now I have settled in and know the team, I’m really motivated and optimistic about the next two years.”
At the 2013 World Championships in Florence he will attempt to equal Michael Rogers’ feat of winning three consecutive world time trial titles. He’s certain to face stiff opposition from Wiggins, Cancellara and the young pretender Phinney.
Is he, like Wiggins, an aficionado of cycling’s history, its colourful lore? Does he read books about it?
“No, not really,” he replies. “Riders from Ullrich onwards but not so much before.”
Does he ever think about his place in the lineage of great champions?
“No. Maybe it comes with age. I can look back on my palmarès after I retire.”
What about the hour record?
“Maybe when I’ve won so many races and I don’t know which one to go for any more,” he says, laughing. “At the moment I have so many other goals.
“I could do it at the end of my career, for the history books. But I’m still young. Bradley can try first and I’ll follow him,” Martin jokes.
In the meantime, he’ll stick with DVD box sets of 24 and paperback thrillers: he’s too busy writing himself into the history books to bother reading them.