Daniel Martin admits he got a little lost this year. After making a high-profile switch from Quickstep to UAE Team Emirates, the 31-year-old rider neglected what it was that made him one of the most exciting racers in professional cycling. For the first time since turning professional in 2008, he felt inhibited.
“Until this year, I never put pressure on myself,” Martin confessed.
With his reputation enhanced by his sixth-place finish at last year’s Tour de France, expectations for 2018 rose in line with his stock as a general classification rider. For a racer who was for a long time reluctant to put his entire season’s ambitions into a three-week race, he knew he would have to grasp the nettle with both hands.
“I always said I wouldn’t wholly focus on the Tour de France but that’s not the case anymore,” he said last January. But in the lengthy build-up to July, Martin struggled to collect results to match the form he felt he had. Switching teams had a greater effect than he anticipated. Even simple things like changing nutrition sponsor meant he had to adjust how he refuelled during races.
“But I think the biggest thing was the psychological aspect,” he said. “I realised I was going into races and thinking ‘s**t, how’s this going to go?’. And I’d never gone into races worrying about results, I’d just gone into races saying, ‘let’s see what happens’,” said Martin, speaking in Dublin recently, buoyed by a return to form at last month’s Criterium du Dauphine.
Martin hit the reset button after Flèche Wallonne, one of his favourite one-day races, where he found himself out of position and out of contention. It was his low point of the early season, but also the turning point.
“It was a realisation that ‘wait a minute, what am I doing this for? I spend all this time away from home and it’s not going well.’ Then you wonder why it isn’t going well. I went back and analysed everything,” said the Garmin ambassador. Since Fleche he feels we’ve seen ‘the real Dan Martin’, the aggressive racer who would attack first and think later.
“It’s (about) going to races with a smile on my face, it’s the sense of competition and being relaxed and at the end of the day, at the stage I’m at in my career, what does it matter if I ever win another race or not?
“It’s a selfish sport and winning is just for personal satisfaction. It’s what I enjoy doing – racing and racing hard and that tactical battle that goes on in races.”
That’s what awaits over the next three weeks. Martin starts his sixth Tour today when the 105th edition rolls into gear in the Vendée region, a 201km opening stage. He believes this is the most demanding route in years, with nine days of racing mostly on the flat roads of northern France, broken up by crosswinds, a team time trial and cobbles before the real battle begins in the Alps.
“I’ve seen every mountain stage. (But) the way I cope with the Tour de France is just take things day by day and not think too far ahead. Because it’s incredibly daunting if you start looking at stage 18, ‘oh that looks hard’, but it’s two and a half weeks away, I may not even get there. That’s the thing with the Tour de France, you can lose it every day. So the aim is just to survive each day.”
Despite last year’s performance, when he raced a dozen stages with two small fractures in his vertebrae, the bookies don’t rate his chances for the yellow jersey – 80/1 in places – and with sprinter Alexander Kristoff also selected, the team’s focus will be split. However, with the exception of Chris Froome, his rivals’ palmarés would hardly intimidate the nephew of Stephen Roche.
Speaking before Froome had his anti-doping case dismissed by the UCI, Martin didn’t want to comment on the Team Sky leader’s controversial lead-up to the Tour but out on the road the defending champion will be the man to watch – again. Not that Martin was bold enough to mention his own targets.
“My goal this year and my goal next year is to get to Paris without having a crash or an injury or an illness,” he said
Martin has never been a win-at-all-costs rider, it’s an attitude he’s adopted as a coping mechanism. Not that he would say it himself, but it seems a sensible approach in a sport where results are not always as they seem.
And with wife Jess expecting twins in the autumn, he’ll continue to approach the day job with a sense of perspective.
“It’s a way of dealing with defeat and failure, it’s just a case of ‘oh yeah, well, it happened.’ I think it’s just my personality as well,” he explains. “It is only a bike race and maybe I do miss out on results because of that attitude, because I’m not that possessed. But at the same time I’ve got one hell of a life out of it.
“Cycling is my passion but it’s also given me everything in life. It led me to Jess and it led me to this lifestyle that we enjoy, so I wouldn’t change a thing.”