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Tony Martin: the man machine

James Witts
12 Oct 2016

Tony Martin is synonymous with the power and metronomic precision of the time-trial but now he's converting to cobbles.

Tony Martin is not just a time-trial World Champion – he’s a German time-trial World Champion. If stereotypes are to be believed, that should make him the most focused, ruthlessly driven and coldly calculating rider in the peloton – a cycling machine. But Cyclist isn’t interested in presenting the stereotype, which is why we have come to Calpe, Spain, to meet the real Tony Martin. 

It’s Etixx-Quick-Step’s pre-season training camp, a chance for the team to bond, set goals and tinker with kit, and as the riders prepare for a morning training ride I spot Martin easing into his armwarmers. 

‘Good morning, Tony, I’m here to interview you after the ride. Great to meet you in such beautiful surroundings,’ I say breezily. In response he grunts and looks away, before heading off to join his team on the road. It’s an inauspicious start, but I’m prepared to believe that the great man has more important things on his mind, and never intended to be dismissive. It’ll be fine once he’s had a spin in the Spanish countyside.

‘Tony, how did the ride go?’ I ask on his return two hours later, stretching out my right hand expectantly. 

Tony Martin

‘I’m sorry, I can’t shake your hand,’ Martin replies. I’m left standing there, hand still hovering in mid-air, feeling like a teenager whose just had his request to dance rejected at the school disco. I’m not sure what to say. Perhaps the stereotypes are true after all.

‘It’s nothing personal,’ Etixx’s press officer interjects. ‘There’s a stomach bug sweeping the hotel.’

‘Many riders are in bed,’ Martin adds. Despite the implication that I may be a disease carrier, I take this as a positive sign. We are talking. 

As it transpires, once the interview gets going, Martin is an engaging and articulate character. He’s clearly focused on his job, but he manages a chuckle or two, especially when I mention the possibility of him winning on the cobbles.

Cobble debut

A couple of days before our visit, Martin announced his New Year resolution to race Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders for the first time [Martin ultimately finished 112th at Flanders and 76th at Roubaix]. They are races that suit riders with plenty of power, and engines don’t come much bigger than Tony Martin’s, however he is quick to play down his chances. ‘It will be fun, but aiming to win would be too high. I just want to show that I can race well and support my team 100%,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot to learn racing on the pavé. You can’t go there first time and say you want to win.’

Martin’s humility is understandable. Etixx-Quick-Step is a team overflowing with Classics specialists, including the likes of Niki Terpstra, who won Roubaix in 2014, and Tom Boonen, looking to win his fifth Roubaix title in what may be his retirement year. The constant, controlled effort of a time-trial is different to the repeated bursts of a Classics race, so it won’t be a simple transition for Martin.

‘We’ll see about the rhythm changes but from my characteristics as a rider, although winning isn’t on the agenda, the races should suit me. Yes, maybe I’m a bit too heavy for the bigger mountains, but in Belgium it’s more about power. And I have enough power.’

Martin should be confident as he has recent form on the pavé. On Stage 4 of last year’s Tour de France, Martin broke away from the pack in the final few kilometres to take the yellow jersey for the first time. ‘The stage featured a 13km stretch of cobbles and that gave me the confidence to hopefully race Roubaix and Flanders,’ he says. ‘I was already thinking about it before, but that win gave me the push.’

While Martin may be modest about his chances, others will be watching how he fares with interest. After all, when Fabian Cancellara transferred his time-trialling abilities to the cobbles, he went on to win Paris-Roubaix three times and the Tour of Flanders three times. And it’s certain that Martin has a TT pedigree to match Cancellara: he’s a three-time Time-Trial World Champion, wearing the rainbow jersey between 2011 and 2013, and a five-time National Champion, having won the past four editions in his homeland.

Time after time

‘I have always enjoyed the time-trial. When I was younger, I did it a lot. Why? Because I kept winning. That encourages any youngster.’ 

Martin was born in 1985 and grew up in Cottbus, East Germany. The wall came tumbling down and he moved west before returning to the east side of Germany at 16, to nurture a growing interest in cycling at Erfurt sports school, the same school that honed the sprint skills of Martin’s new teammate Marcel Kittel.

‘That’s when I really started cycling,’ Martin says. Before that he, like Cancellara, wanted to be a footballer. ‘That was the dream. I didn’t have the best technique but was a really aggressive player, so I played in defence. But it became clear I wasn’t good enough to turn pro.’

Tony Martin portrait

Martin’s dad encouraged him to follow a different dream. ‘My dad raced a lot when he was young – not professional but a good standard – and I remember we always watched the Tour de France together. He was my first coach and taught me a lot. With him I had success at smaller races and some amateur events. The passion grew and as I always wanted to make my hobby my job, I turned professional.’

Martin has two brothers. The elder cycled ‘but didn’t make it as a pro’. The younger ‘played football but was more into computers’. So it was left to young Tony to pursue the sportsman’s dream, gaining his first pro contract with HTC-Highroad in 2008. In 2009, he showed the combative resilience that’s become his trademark, winning the mountains classification at Paris-Nice en route to second overall. But it was his time-trial victory at the Criterium International and bronze at the Worlds that really captured the fans’ attention, and it was this form of racing that clearly captured Martin’s heart.

‘I’ve always been interested in the small pieces coming together as one fast whole. I’m interested in the materials and positioning,’ he says. ‘Get those right and you can ride faster with no more energy spent. I like less work and a better result, to maximise things. At some point you don’t go faster just by training.’

This attention to the bike and riding position is in evidence in Calpe. Before the morning’s ride-out, Martin and his mechanic played around with his Specialized Shiv, armed with allen keys and a tape measure. While his teammates joked and leaned against their Specialized Tarmac road bikes, Martin stood over his aerobars, transfixed. In fact, I swear he didn’t blink for a good minute as numerous calculations and permutations ran through his head.

Secret stealth

Tony Martin interview

‘I’m trying a new type of bars,’ Martin tells me. ‘But we’re still in the testing period as we’ve not long had them through the wind-tunnel. If I can ride OK with them on the road, we’ll go with it. We use easy, recovery days to try new things. But I can’t say what bars they are.’

In the past, Martin has used Pro bars from Shimano’s component brand. The bars in Calpe are a naked silver. Presumably they’ll be painted and branded once the racing starts, and then we’ll all see what difference they make. Martin’s long-time coach Sebastian Weber is reported as saying Martin’s time-trialling is currently better than ever, and that part of the improvement comes from a new hand and forearm position. 

Of course, TTs are about more than fancy bars and elbow angles. ‘Your conditioning has to be spot on,’ says Martin. ‘You also need a strong head. I like to be alone on the road and against myself and the clock. And you need the right conditions to suit your characteristics.’ 

It’s a theme picked up on by Etixx trainer Koen Pelgrim: ‘You must have the engine and he has a huge engine. I’m talking about his VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, functional threshold of power… He just has enormous power to put energy into the bike. His body shape is also naturally made for time-trialling. Those narrow shoulders really reduce his frontal profile, improving his aerodynamics. And then there’s his mindset. He can cope with hours on his own, digging deep into different zones. In fact, when it comes to time-trial, I’ve never known someone who can dig so deep.’

That combination of physical and mental attributes has led to some astounding figures coming from post-race analysis of Martin’s time-trials. UK outfit Cycling Power Lab analysed data from the 2011 time-trial World Championships, where Tony Martin beat his nearest rival, Bradley Wiggins, by a shade over 1 minute 15 seconds over a course of 46.4km. It estimated that Martin’s average power during the race was a staggering 481 watts, but that the gap between him and the others became bigger when including aerodynamic drag. 

A lot of power married to a small amount of frontal area – drag – is the equation for speed on flat TTs (weight is less important unless the route gets hilly). Cycling Power Lab reckons that Martin has a CdA (co-efficient of drag) of 0.23m2, giving him a power-to-drag (watts/m2 CdA) figure of 2,089 – over 100 clear of Wiggins. In short, Martin’s power output and aerodynamics are near perfect for time-trialling.

Bittersweet jersey

Tony Martin TT

Still, Martin’s not a machine. He is human, as he demonstrated when finishing a lowly seventh at September’s World Championships in Richmond, USA. Team Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka took a surprise victory, beating Martin by an unlikely 1 minute 16 seconds. Martin, as ever, dug deep but he was visibly suffering from the after-effects of his crash while wearing the yellow jersey at the 2015 Tour de France. 

On Stage 6 of the Tour, less than a kilometre from the finish line, Martin clipped the wheel of the rider in front, hit the tarmac and broke his collarbone. Three of his teammates guided Martin home with the tenderness of a mother cradling her newborn, fully aware that his race was over. Martin’s collarbone was so badly broken that a piece of bone pierced the skin. It was a bittersweet day for the team, as Zdenek Stybar powered to stage victory.

‘Yes, the Tour was a true rollercoaster,’ Martin says. ‘I had surgery the day after and had to stay in hospital for four days before going home to recover. It was a hard time for me to see my teammates fighting stage by stage while I lay in bed. But for my personal ambitions, the crash didn’t matter. I’ll never forget wearing yellow.’

Martin recovered sufficiently to win the late-August stage race Tour du Poitou-Charentes in south-west France, but looked exposed and tired at the Worlds. Still, not one to dwell on his loss, he flew over to Brazil to reconnoitre the Olympic TT course that awaits in Rio on Wednesday 10th August. He wasn’t impressed with what he saw.

‘I was surprised as it’s a really tough parcours and too hard for many out-and-out time-triallers,’ Martin says of the 29.8km route, which the men will tackle roughly twice for a total 54.5km. ‘It’s hilly, which isn’t normally a problem but some of the climbs are more for climbers than time-triallists.’

Martin’s discontent stems from two notable climbs: the Grumari and Grota Funda. The former peaks at 13% and averages 7% over 1.2km; the latter drags on for 2.1km at 4.5% and maxes out at 6%. The hills are around 10km apart with numerous smaller climbs in between.

‘I don’t know why but organisers feel it’s more exciting the hiller it is – that riders standing on their pedals and struggling up the hills is good for cycling,’ Martin says, looking irritated. ‘For me it’s more boring when it’s like that. I feel it’s stupid and not a true time-trial.’

2012 – the best ever

Tony Martin Etixx

Martin suggests the course suits GC riders such as Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali but, despite the ‘unsuitable’ route, time-trial gold remains one of his season’s goals, building on the silver he won on a frenzied day in London nearly four years ago. 

‘That was a tough but fair course,’ Martin says of the 2012 Olympic time-trial. ‘But it was more than that. It was the best atmosphere I have ever raced in with the crowd at least five deep. It was the same with the road race. The only atmosphere that matches it was in Yorkshire for the start of the Tour. Both incredible.’

He hopes, of course, that the atmosphere will be replicated if not eclipsed when the Tour de France starts in Germany next year. The 2017 version’s full route won’t be revealed until October but ASO has announced it’ll begin in Dusseldorf with a 13km time-trial. In fact, it seems the Tour organiser has already pencilled the German in for yellow, stating on its website: ‘Based on the stage profile, Tony Martin has the best shot at wearing the legendary yellow jersey in his home country at the end of the opening day.’

If he does, it will help cement the renaissance in German cycling that has occurred over the past few years, with the likes of Martin, André Greipel, John Degenkolb and sprint king Kittel. 

‘Kittel’s settled in very well,’ says Martin of his countryman, who moved to Etixx from Giant-Alpecin this year. ‘He’s a nice character, always smiling and having fun. He behaves like he’s been on the team for years – in a good way,’ laughs Martin, before reflecting on the man Kittel replaced, Mark Cavendish, and how the two compare. ‘Losing Cav was hard, for sure, especially as I rode with him at HTC-Highroad for four years. He then had a year at Sky before we hooked up again at Quick-Step for three years. He brought a lot of character to the team and a lot of success. But we’re still friends. 

‘As for the differences between the two, I’ll know more as the season progresses. They’re both smart sprinters and know where to place themselves. If pushed, maybe Cav’s a little bit stronger in uphill sprints, Marcel in the flatter sprints. But Marcel is still young with lots of potential and will grow stronger in our team. The team is ready for him; the sprint train is ready for him. We can’t wait for the big races.’

And with that, our time is up. Despite the fragile start, Tony Martin turned out to be more interesting and, at times, more open than I’d anticipated. It’s something I’m pondering later on as we head to Alicante airport. I spot a lone Etixx rider ahead. ‘That’s Tony,’ says our driver. True to form, head down, it’s Martin, cranking out a metronomic rhythm. Now we’re best pals I wave out the car. Tony looks up. Tony looks back down. Nothing. 

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