Dan Martin's fourth place overall and stage win in the Vuelta a España represented his best-ever return in a three-week race and the Irishman will look to build on that momentum as he prepares for 2021 and the chance to lead the line with Chris Froome at Israel Start-Up Nation.
Martin signed for Israel Start-Up Nation on the back of a disappointing final season at UAE Team Emirates in 2019. He arrived at his new squad with the main aim of competing in the one-day races and possibly targeting one of cycling’s Grand Tours, but aiming for overall success over three weeks wasn’t the bedrock of his initial ambitions.
Those circumstances changed as the season developed. First came the news last winter that Israel Start-Up Nation would take over the WorldTour license from Katusha, which essentially meant that Martin had multiple Grand Tour doors to walk through. Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolution of the racing season meant that Martin could combine a one-day focus with a Grand Tour aim.
"When I came here I was setting myself up to be in a Pro Conti team, racing a lower level calendar and maybe doing the Giro but in the end, we did all the WorldTour races but the lack of pressure, almost happy-go-lucky approach was really enjoyable," Martin told Cyclingnews in an episode of the Cyclingnews podcast that will be released on Friday.
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The lack of pressure placed on Martin’s shoulders from his team also meant that he could race freely, so when he arrived at the Tour de France in late August nursing an injury sustained at the Critérium du Dauphiné, he was able to ride himself into the race without being forced to target a top-10 overall.
The Tour de France itself was a tough experience for the 34-year-old. Missing his top form during a phase of the season in which so many riders were at their ultimate best meant that Martin had to realign his goals for the race, and even when he was able to attack and establish himself in key mountain breaks the race tactics and battle for the yellow jersey ensured that his chances were limited.
"It was just a weird way to race at the Tour," Martin said.
"Even without the injury, I rode the Tour the same way I would have ridden it anyway. Obviously, the condition wasn’t there and the health wasn’t there and that’s why I spent the first 10 days riding around France and trying to recover. I wanted to save as much energy for the mountain stages in the second half. That was hard in itself because for the first part I was just getting to the finish line every day and that wasn’t something that I’d done before.
"The mountain stages in the third week were a carrot dangling in front of me but it didn’t work out as planned. We had a good go but it didn’t quite happen but that was also down to how the Tour was raced this year. If you look at previous Tours there were big breakaways going in the mountains but this year two of the breaks I got into had four or five riders and when that happens you immediately know that it’s going to be tough.
"I learned a lot about myself in that race and it made me stronger. Firstly I learned that I really enjoy riding for GC. Not doing it at the Tour made me realize how much I enjoyed it."
After the Tour de France, Martin showed glimpses of a return to form with fifth in La Flèche Wallonne and 11th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège but it was at the Vuelta a España where his condition really took off.
A parcours littered with punchy summit finishes were tailor-made to his style of racing but there were times when pure aggression had to be combined with a coolness that Martin admits hasn’t always come easy to him. That said, Martin took third-place finishes on the first two stages of the race before taking his first victory in over two years on the third day of racing to La Laguna Negra de Vinuesa.
The emotional scenes at the end of the stage saw Martin dedicate the win to his two young twin daughters, as well as thank the team for their patience with his performances.
"I’ve been aggressive and perhaps that’s cost me results but at the Vuelta you can afford to be aggressive because you can see that everyone is risking everything to try and win the race as well," he says.
"You can afford to make attacks whereas at the Tour the stakes are so high and it negates the racing. A lot of times to finish second, third, fourth, or fifth at the Tour it’s just about not losing time. For me, that’s something that I’ve found difficult because I enjoy attacking and it’s part of the tactical side that I really enjoy. I think that I underestimated my need to focus and concentrate every day. I think that’s the toughest part of racing GC.
"But the reason I signed here, was because they brought me here because they saw the potential that was untapped. They firmly believed that I hadn’t reached my potential in cycling and that they could bring me further. This result in the Vuelta, and this was why it was so emotional, was because I had come so close so many times with seconds and thirds since the girls had been born but I hadn’t quite won yet. But I also wanted to pay back the team for the belief that they’d had in me. To prove them right was incredibly gratifying."
Martin held a podium position at the Vuelta until stage 12 before dropping down one spot and riding into Madrid in fourth overall. The result was his best ever over three weeks and Martin admits that it solidified his belief that he could compete over a three-week race and not be pigeonholed as an attacking presence in the mountains who couldn’t quite maintain the force to challenge for a podium.
"I’ve proved, mainly to myself that I can contest a Grand Tour. I didn’t really know before. There was the 2017 Tour but if you take away the time that I lost in the crash with Richie [Porte] I would have been very, very close to the podium that year. Obviously, if I had finished third or fourth in the 2017 Tour then we’d be talking about the last few years differently," he said.
"It’s always been there but the Vuelta was pleasing because it was the first time I'd got through a Grand Tour without any regrets or bad luck. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you make your own luck and I don’t want to blame bad luck for results but looking back I was the fourth-best rider in the Vuelta and I got fourth. That’s gratifying."
While Martin is certain to maintain leadership in at least one Grand Tour next year, Israel Start-Up Nation have been busy during the second half of this season improving their roster for the coming campaign. The stand-out signing is four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome, while Daryl Impey, Patrick Bevin, Sep Vanmarcke, and Michale Woods have all been added to the line-up.
Martin still has yet to sit down with the team management and decide on his goals for 2021 but the Irishman is confident that the new group of signings will gel with the existing infrastructure that’s already in place and that a lack of ego among the new recruits will help keep the relaxed environment within the team.
"I’m good friends with a lot of the riders that we’ve signed. Between Daryl, who I’ve known since 2005, Woods being in Andorra, and Chris and I racing as rivals for a long time, it’s a group of guys who have been signed not just because of what they can bring on a performance level but also maintain the good atmosphere that we’ve had this year," he said.
"The team recognized the need to have a good vibe at the dinner table. It’s also a group that doesn’t have a lot of ego going around. I think that we’re all willing to do what’s best for the team. A lot of teams say that but it comes with maturity. We’ve all been there, we’ve all got our own results and we all respect each other."