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Still hungry: Dan Martin profile

James Witts
19 Oct 2018

Ireland’s Dan Martin talks to Cyclist about gastronomy, dope cheats and riding through the pain of that crash at last year’s Tour

This article first appeared in Issue 75 of Cyclist Magazine

Words James Witts Photography Sean Hardy

Search online for Dan Martin and you may come across an Instagram image of his wife, Jess, eating what appears to be a miniature globe on the end of stick. It has been plucked from an ornate structure that looks more like a work of modern art than a meal.

‘That was at El Celler de Can Roca,’ Martin says of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Girona, voted world number one in 2013 and 2015.

‘It was from the taster menu. The Roca brothers [chefs Joan, Josep and Jordi] travel for two months each year to seek inspiration, and then create mouthfuls representing a destination they’ve been to.

‘This year it’s Peru, Thailand, Japan and Turkey. Food is a passion of mine. I love it.’

Who’d have thought that Dan Martin, 1.76m tall and 62kg thin, whose close-fitting top hangs off his slender shoulders like an adult’s shirt on a child’s clothes hanger, loves food.

But like a pro cyclist managing the periodisation of training, it’s a focus on intensity rather than volume that satiates the Irishman’s appetite.

‘It’s about the quality of food, not the quantity,’ he says. ‘That’s what’s nice about living in Andorra and spending time in Girona: good food, great ingredients. Very small portions. Intense flavours. It satisfies you.

‘I have the same argument about race food. Guys put on weight at races because the food’s so bland and carb-heavy that everyone eats loads because they’re not satisfied.

‘Something small but delicious and suddenly your body’s like, “OK, I’ve had enough now.” Why eat loads of McDonald’s when you can have a good steak and it satisfies you?’

Racing freestyle

Celler de Can Roca describes itself as ‘a freestyle restaurant committed to the avant-garde’.

At the heart of the avant-garde is the unorthodox. Martin’s style of racing might lack the surrealism of Roca’s frozen calamari piped into crackers, but in a sport dominated by data, his cavalier breakaways have attracted legions of fans and helped build a palmarès that includes two Classics victories and sixth at the Tour de France.

It also earned him a high-profile move from Quick-Step Floors to UAE Team Emirates after he reportedly turned down a move to Team Sky.

‘It takes a bit of time to gel and get used to new procedures, but there’s an incredibly high level of professionalism with the staff and riders,’ he says of the move.

‘It’s a team that has history on its side but is also reinventing itself for modern racing.’

Martin and UAE Team Emirates are at pivotal stages in their respective careers.

Martin is aiming to break his four-year Classics hiatus and make the top five at the Tour de France, while the team, with very Italian DNA after years under the name Lampre, is broadening its horizons and loosening its purse strings.

During the off-season, Martin was joined by fellow signings Fabio Aru and Alexander Kristoff, while the team retained the services of Diego Ulissi, Rui Costa, Darwin Atapuma and a talented group of young Italian riders that includes Edward Ravasi, Valerio Conti and former world pursuit champion Filippo Ganna.

Cyclist catches up with Martin at the early-season Volta ao Algarve, where he will go on to finish 19th overall.

After suffering sickness the week before, this was more about getting some miles in his legs rather than going for glory.

‘In all honesty, the first race of the year is about acclimatising to racing in the peloton. You spend the winter training alone.

‘It’s a completely different sensation riding close to someone’s rear wheel. It’s sharpening those senses again. I also need to race to hone that ability to go into the red.’

These early-season races are just the warm-up routine before the Ardennes Classics where Martin’s ability to fly up short, sharp hills means he’s an obvious contender at the likes of Amstel Gold, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Indeed, it was Liège 2013 that provided Martin’s breakthrough win when he sprinted away from Joaquim Rodriguez.

Five years later Martin is more experienced, more aware, and observes that ‘Liege promises to be a more aggressive race from further out but, like Alejandro Valverde, I’m strong in the last 10km. That’s why there’s no real reason to race from further out’.

Martin is also confident thanks to UAE Emirates acquiring the services of respected domestique Rory Sutherland from Movistar.

‘We managed to steal him from Valverde and I’m going to work with Rory all season. I’ve had a team protecting me but never just one rider. He’ll be my bodyguard. Alejandro will definitely miss him.’

Valverde crops up a lot in conversation. Despite Martin’s Ardennes love affair, the Irishman has not managed a win since Liège in 2013, while in the same period Valverde has won Liège twice (four in all) and Flèche Wallonne four times (five in all).

In 2017, Martin finished runner-up behind Valverde at both races and was again second behind him at Flèche Wallonne in 2014.

It’s not lost on Martin that his biggest rival is also a man who has served a two-year ban for doping.

‘The thing about Valverde is this,’ says Martin. ‘In my mind, because I finished so close to him, I have to believe he’s not doping still. But we don’t know about the effects doping may have had long-term.’

It’s a bit of a hot topic at the moment. Recent research in the journal Science Reports suggests muscles have ‘epigenetic memory’.

Essentially, a regularly stimulated muscle can potentially reach its peak even after a period of cessation, which intimates that dopers could benefit from doping even when they’ve stopped.

Does Martin believe drugs are still a problem in the peloton? ‘I’m rarely asked questions like this because journalists expect we can’t answer it,’ he says.

‘But I’m happy to because of the clean reputation I’ve maintained. Amateur cyclists ask, “Doesn’t it affect you when guys are possibly doping?”

‘But if you’re lining up at the start line thinking that person might have taken drugs, you’re already beaten.’

Martin uses an inhaler, but stresses he’s rarely needed a TUE. He admits he took the painkiller Tramadol once ‘and it scared the crap out of me. It was before a long stage of the 2010 Giro and made me so sick that it really terrified me.’

That crash

Tramadol’s shady reputation in the peloton is why Martin remained tight-lipped over the severity of his infamous crash at the 2017 Tour de France.

‘I’d cracked my spine but I didn’t want people to think I was on Tramadol the entire race. In fact, I didn’t even take a single painkiller.’

Anyone who remembers the crash will be amazed that he managed to continue without any pain medication.

It happened on Stage 9 on a bleak, rainy day in southeast France. Richie Porte lost control of his BMC at more than 70kmh on the final descent into Chambery, and as he slid across the road he took Martin out. Porte’s race ended with a broken collarbone and pelvis.

Incredibly, Martin, lying fourth at the start of the day, soldiered on through the pain, eventually finishing sixth overall.

‘Credit to my soigneur, Frank, and physio, Anthony, as they worked on me intensively every day,’ Martin recalls.

‘That was actually the hardest part mentally because I was either on the bike or in rehab. It also helped that the day after the crash we had a rest day followed by two sprint days. If it had been a mountain stage, I’d have been out.’

Two cracks in his vertebrae failed to prevent him from recording his best-ever result at the Tour but it did affect his riding style.

Look back at footage of the Pyrenean stages and you’ll notice Martin remained clamped to his saddle throughout like a limpet to a rock.

‘Strangely, it wasn’t actually a pain-barrier thing,’ he says. ‘It’s just that the muscle wasn’t firing enough to straighten up. I was stuck!

‘I actually met Richie yesterday for the first time since the Tour. He’s called but it’s the first time in the flesh. “Fuck you, Richie,” I told him,’ Martin jokes.

‘I was thinking about doing a two-part video where he might give me flowers and I punch him!’

Despite his bravery in soldiering on with a broken back, Martin claims it’s not in his personality to win at all costs.

‘One thing I hate doing is racing when I’m not 100%, which says a lot about my consistency of results – I race when I feel I’ve trained well enough to perform.

‘Maybe that’s a mental weakness: if I don’t feel good, I don’t want to race. Maybe it takes away my confidence. But I know my body well enough that if I do feel well, I can do something.’

He certainly should know his body, as this is his 10th year as a professional. ‘The sport has changed,’ he says. ‘I have a photo of me on Mur de Huy in 2008 and it looks like something from the stone age: baggy jersey, archaic bikes.

‘Technologically, the sport has moved on, with such an attention to detail. The competition is much fiercer with races won and lost by tiny margins.

‘Look at last year’s Tour. I was in sixth and four minutes behind Chris Froome. Ten years before it would have been double that.’ In fact, 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador was nearly 12 minutes clear of sixth-placed Valverde.

That increased competition could be part of the reason for Martin’s 14-month victory drought, so what does he need to do to find his way back onto the top step?

‘Not much, really. I just have to believe. I’ve had 10 top-fours at the last three Tours and not won a stage. It’ll happen.’

Will it happen in 2018? ‘I haven’t looked at the Tour in too much detail yet. I’ve skirted around the edges and seen that the first week is flat and crashy; second week is hilly, maybe crashy as well,’ he laughs.

‘To win an early hilltop finish, that would be great. One of my second places was on Mur Bretagne [in 2015; this year it’s Stage 6].’

Not surprisingly, Martin wouldn’t choose the Roubaix cobbles of Stage 9 as a target, ‘but it is what it is’. He is, however, the confirmed leader in France, with fellow new recruit Fabio Aru heading up his home tour, the Giro, instead.

‘Whether Aru will support Martin come the Tour remains to be seen. What’s clearer is that Martin will wrestle for UAE top billing – at least in the first phase of the race – with Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, who moved from Katusha in the off-season.

Juggling the drudgery and consistency of the GC with individual stage glory is not always a harmonious act.

You only have to see Mark Cavendish’s one-season stint at Team Sky – a decision he called a mistake – for evidence of that. But, says Martin, it’s nothing new and can work in his favour.

‘I had it at Quick-Step with Marcel [Kittel] and it takes the pressure off a little. It means I have a race goal of Alex winning on the flat stages rather than thinking, “Shit, I hope I don’t lose time today.”’

Life beyond the bike

Martin lives in Andorra with his wife, Jess, an international runner who finished 16th in the 10,000m at the 2016 Olympics. She has just retired at the grand old age of 25.

‘Jess isn’t closing the door, she just needs to step back,’ Martin says. ‘She’s been running to a high level for 10 years. With athletics, a lot of people just see the Worlds and Olympics but there’s a load of low-key races… it’s just hard.

‘Also, I’d come back from a race, we’d have one day together and then she’d be off to a race. We weren’t seeing a lot of each other.’

There’s also the small matter of twins on the way, due on 7th October. ‘Hard to put into words how excited we are right now,’ Martin tweeted when he announced the news.

If they arrive on time, they’ll be born six days before this year’s Il Lombardia one-day Classic. So will Martin return to the scene of his 2014 triumph or be on paternity leave instead? Time will tell.

Between then and now, Martin will spend upwards of 35 hours a week training and racing. He’s also looking to recon key stages at the Tour, including the Mur Bretagne. With his unique mind, it could pay off.

‘I have a retentive memory,’ Martin says. ‘I remember climbs like that – where they’re steep, where they flatten out.

‘It helped with my injury at the Tour because I knew how long I had to hold on for. Then I could recover. Then fight again for 100m, setting myself little finishes every time. Take today. Before we started the climb, I could remember what the altitude was…’

‘How high?’ I interrupt. ‘909 metres,’ continues Martin without drawing breath or blinking. ‘And take the Col du Tourmalet. It’s 2,115m. So if you have 3km to go and you’re at 1,900m, that’s 210m to go at 7%. It’s just how my brain works.’

It also might be why the human GPS doesn’t rely on technology such as power meters. ‘They’re limiting,’ he says, ‘and I don’t know what my limits are.’

He’s a man who often races on feel. Martin’s desire to race, not just sit in, might have cost him victories in the past but it also makes him one of the most exciting riders in the peloton and, although in his 10th year as a pro, he’s still only 31 years old.

With Jens Voigt having raced until he was 43, it seems premature to look at life beyond cycling, but Martin’s moves to Quick-Step and now UAE were both born from a desire to maximise his GC and one-day career with teams that would support him before his time runs out.

But whatever the future holds it’s certain that he will look to satisfy his epicurean appetite.

‘We base our holidays around food,’ he says, returning to the gastronomic theme. ‘We went to Barbados last year because we’d read there were plenty of nice places to eat.

‘I also part-own a restaurant chain in London called Frog. There’s one in Covent Garden and one in Shoreditch.

‘They’re run by Adam Handling, who featured on MasterChef: The Professionals [in 2013 where he reached the final].

‘I knew a contact through our management and they were looking for investment so I got involved… but whether there’ll be a range of Frog bike food, well, you’d have to ask Adam about that.’

Dan Martin timeline 

2004: Shows his early promise by winning the British Under-18 National Road Race Championships

2008: Turns pro with Garmin-Chipotle, winning the Route del Sud stage race and Irish road race champs, having switched national allegiances in 2006.

2009: Completes his first Grand Tour at the Vuelta, finishing 53rd overall and 15th in the mountains classification

2010: Takes his biggest win to date with overall success at the Tour of Poland, having also won a stage

2011: His most successful season to date sees Martin win a stage at the Vuelta and become the first Irishman to hold the mountains jersey. Finishes the season with second place at Il Lombardia

2012: Finishes 35th in his first Tour de France but ends the year winless

2013: Wins the Volta a Catalunya in March, then follows fourth place at Flèche-Wallonne with victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège four days later. A debut stage win at the Tour marks the high point of his year, but no further success follows

2014: Takes second at Flèche-Wallonne but crashes in the finale of LBL, and again during the Giro team time-trial in Belfast. Salvages his season by winning Il Lombardia

2016: After a winless 2015, switches to Etixx-Quick-Step but despite regular top 10 finishes in Catalunya, and at both the Dauphine and Tour, victory remains elusive

2017: Carries strong form into the Tour, but a nasty crash on Stage 9 leaves him with a cracked spine. Continues to ride on, however, to finish sixth overall in Paris

2018: Won Stage 6 of the Tour de France – his only victory of the year – on his way to eighth overall.

Dan Martin on...

... being a protected rider: ‘Even if I had three mates with me, what are they going to do? Just sit behind, check I’m OK and not dropped.

‘I can do that with other teams’ riders. I think I’m better at racing in an organic environment, analysing race situations – I’m good at that.’

… nutrition: ‘I’m sceptical about many of the developments in nutritional science. With many of the studies, it might work out for a certain percentage of people, but what about those it doesn’t work for?

‘How do you know if you’re practising something that really doesn’t work for you?’

… alternative forms of exercise: ‘I do a spot of running with Jess during the off-season, and I think I’ll run more when I retire, as I enjoy it.

‘That said, cycling’s currently restricting things. I can run at a tempo pace with my heart rate nestled between 150-160bpm but can’t go any higher because my cycling muscles won’t let me. And no, I can’t run as fast as Jess!’

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