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Behind the scenes with Dan Martin at the 2019 Tour de France

In-depth
24 Oct 2019
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His move to the Israel Cycling Academy has been confirmed, and with the team's takeover of Katusha-Alpecin's licence his place in the WorldTour is assured for the coming years, but before all that we went behind the scenes at the Tour de France with Dan Martin and UAE Team Emirates. This article was originally published in issue 93 of Cyclist magazine

Words James Witts Photography Geoff Waugh

Built from the ashes of an Italian team, funded by the United Arab Emirates, and supported by a stellar cast of sports scientists, UAE Team Emirates is aiming to be one of the world’s best teams beyond 2020.

‘The Tour is like childbirth – you simply forget how shit you feel. But that fatigue racks up. People are saying Wout van Aert is the favourite today. If we’re talking after Stage 2 or Stage 3, you’d say 100 per cent. But this is Stage 13. You just don’t know how riders react to racing so many days beforehand. Throw in the heat and who knows what today will bring?’

These are the words of UAE Team Emirates’s Dan Martin as Cyclist enjoys a one-on-one with the Birmingham-born Irishman before this year’s sole individual time-trial at the Tour de France, 27.2km from Pau to Pau on the edge of the Pyrenees in the far south of the country.

We’re here to shadow the team that rose from the ashes of Lampre two years ago. Lampre, as many fans of the sport will no doubt remember, were an Italian professional cycling team that ran, off and on, from 1991 to 2016.

In that time, the team won Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia, and boasted World Champions on their roster. But deep into 2016, Lampre announced they were to close. Or, more accurately, that they were to transfer their WorldTour licence from CGS Cycling to Chinese company TJ Sport Consultation.

The news spread like wildfire that China was to have its first WorldTour team. Online retail giant Alibaba was mooted as a potential co-sponsor. It didn’t happen. Reportedly, funding for the team was curtailed after the head of the TJ Sport project, Li Zhiqiang, fell ill.

At the 11th hour, the United Arab Emirates stepped in. UAE Abu Dhabi was born, their name swiftly changing to UAE Team Emirates in February 2017 after securing sponsorship from the Kingdom’s main airline.

Until Emirates Airlines came in, the budget was a reported US$10 million per season, which is modest for a WorldTour team. The specifics of the team’s current finances aren’t known, but if the size of a team bus’s awning is any indicator of wealth, they’re up there with Ineos.

It’s huge, a fact that is much appreciated when Martin and Cyclist chat, as it’s barely past midday yet temperatures are already touching 32°C.

It’s hot, and it gets significantly hotter when you’re clad in a skinsuit with a barely breathable teardrop helmet clamped to your cranium. ‘Thankfully, I’m not bad in the heat,’ Martin says. It’s just as well.

‘If we can stay within a minute, minute and a half, of the winner, that will be a hell of a result today,’ interrupts new directeur sportif Neil Stephens, who was recently recruited from Mitchelton-Scott.

‘I’ll just focus on my performance and the time will speak for itself,’ Martin adds.

After 12 stages, Martin is handily placed in ninth overall, and today is a day for the 32-year-old to potentially set himself up for a stab at the podium in the mountains. As it transpires, however, Martin wilts in the heat, losing more than two minutes to the leaders in the process.

Technical parcours

Pau is a mainstay on the Tour calendar. In fact, this is its 71st appearance in the race, making it the third most-visited city after Paris (105) and Bordeaux (75). But this commune of 80,000 inhabitants often features as little more than a footnote, usually coming at the end of a metronomic flat stage in preparation for the mountains to come.

And there are some really big mountains nearby, including the Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin and Col de Peyresourde. Today, however, Pau is the focus.

The cleverly designed time-trial course is reminiscent of the Monaco Grand Prix in that it weaves its way in and out of Pau – which has in fact hosted its own motor race, the Pau Grand Prix, since 1900 – and up and down, the technicality of the parcours matched by viewing opportunities.

It’s a pure test of time-trialling finesse, power and strategy… and it also happens to be missing its main protagonist: Bahrain-Merida’s Rohan Dennis.

Martin says he would have had the 2018 World Time-Trial Champion as the odds-on favourite for today but, in a fit of pique, the 29-year-old Australian withdrew from the race 24 hours before. No official reason was cited, though a ‘distressing’ ill-fitting skinsuit is one rumoured reason.

Van Aert, the 25-year-old Belgian former Cyclocross World Champion, is now tipped as favourite by many, given that he won a 26.1km TT in Roanne during June’s Critérium du Dauphiné.

Today’s route profile would appear to offer a similar physical and technical challenge to the TT at the Dauphiné, and on that day Martin finished in 20th place, 1min 38sec down on the Belgian.

‘The Dauphiné was a good test but the only similarity is distance,’ says Martin with a dismissive laugh that bats down comparisons. ‘On paper, the profiles look similar but they’re really not. They’re completely different efforts.

‘At the Dauphiné you pushed, pushed, pushed for the first 20 minutes as it was basically uphill. Here there are far more technical corners plus short, punchy climbs with downhills in between to recover. It’s very different,’ he repeats for emphasis.

And Martin should know. He flew to Pau in May and rode the course twice. He has also pored over race maps and is about to recon the route once again after we’ve finished talking.

‘I rode some of the climbs at race pace to test the gearing, but it was mainly slower,’ Martin tells us later after his recce. ‘Gear choice is important. Can you push the big chainring or not? Details like that make a difference.’

That detail stretches back to a March visit to the wind-tunnel at Silverstone, where Martin and Tour co-leader Fabio Aru spent time with aerodynamicist Simon Smart, configuring their positions on the team’s Colnago K time-trial bike. UAE’s head coach, Iñigo San Millán, attended too. He joined the team in the off-season, as did medical director Jeroen Swart.

‘He’s an expert on bike position too,’ says Martin, ‘and I must admit I’ve never felt more comfortable on the saddle.’

Off-season overhaul

UAE’s recruitment didn’t stop there. The team also brought in South African John Wakefield as performance co-ordinator. Wakefield doubles as director of coaching outfit Science to Sport, highlighting not only the revamp of the backroom staff but the team’s ever-growing focus on sport science.

At the heart of that empirical overhaul is San Millán, who is assistant professor at the acclaimed University of Colorado School of Medicine, and who performs the key role of applying data emanating from the controlled environment of the labs to the chaotic world of WorldTour racing.

‘The team has a partnership with the university,’ the genial San Millán tells us. That includes anything from lab testing to hosting training camps. Aru, for instance, planned a two-week altitude camp in Colorado in the build-up to the Giro d’Italia, although in the end he missed out after having surgery for a constricted iliac artery in March.

Even while racing at the Tour, Aru is still recovering from his surgery and is being monitored all the while by San Millán and his medical team. San Millán also monitors the team’s energy levels.

There’s nothing new in that, as every team will test their riders’ metabolic rates in the lab, but San Millán is able to do so out on the road thanks to inventing a non-invasive tool to measure glycogen levels.

‘It’s called the MuscleSound,’ he says. ‘It’s basically a high-frequency ultrasound that’s been validated with the gold standard, which is muscle biopsy. Of course, we can’t go extracting muscles from our riders every day so this is the next best thing. We test the riders every day and it shows whether the rider needs to eat more or less carbohydrate.’

Each test takes just a minute and is tagged onto the traditional Tour biometric tests of the daily weigh-in and, in the UAE team’s case, a weekly calliper test to assess body fat. How does that manifest itself in real life, we ask Martin?

‘Usually a pile of carbs!’ he replies. ‘I’ve just had a big plate of rice and will consume gels before a race. We also live by energy drinks, bars and rice cakes. Today, although it’s a shorter day, we’ll still get the calories in, because tomorrow’s a tough day up the Tourmalet. We’ve also got to keep hydrated, of course…’

Drink and be merry

Hydration is where Dr Adrian Rotunno comes in. Cyclist met Rotunno last year when he was working for Dimension Data. He moved to UAE with Swart owing to the team’s second academic collaboration, this time with the University of Cape Town.

Rotunno is charged with maintaining the riders’ health, and he believes hydration is key. This starts with Rotunno’s urine specific gravity test.

‘Essentially, we measure the weight of the riders’ urine,’ the South African says. ‘The paler it is, the lighter it is, the more hydrated you are.’

Rotunno undertakes this wee walkabout every morning, after starting his day – every day – with a 6am run.

‘We get a gruppetto going with the soigneurs and mechanics,’ he says. ‘We eat crap all day so it’s essential. It’s also good for morale.’ Although not for one of the unnamed sporting directors, he adds, who was injured the previous day. ‘He couldn’t take the pace!’

The team undertake sweat tests at different times of the season to measure the sodium content of each droplet. This is dictated heavily by genetics and can vary tenfold from person to person, which means every rider should have their own salt replacement programme – although customised water bottles are logistically impossible at the Tour.

‘They have their own electrolyte mix at times, though,’ says Rotunno. ‘Whatever they drink, we ensure they take slow, regular sips. Too large a volume at once bloats the stomach, reduces their appetite and then they don’t ingest enough calories.

‘It’s like drop therapy. We’ve shown that a rider can consume an extra two litres of fluid from race finish to bedtime if they sip.’

This level of detail becomes more important the deeper you dig into a Grand Tour, according to Rotunno. A dehydrated, starved rider is a recipe for disaster, which is why Martin, Aru and teammates supplement the real food they have for breakfast, immediately post-stage and then for dinner with carbohydrate and protein drinks throughout the day.

‘It’s the only way we can replace up to 8,000 calories,’ Rotunno says. ‘There’s also a 24-hour food room. One of the unlucky soigneurs must allocate half of his room to the kitchen where they’ll fill a table with healthy foods and snacks – things like fruit and protein bars. Many a “swannie” has awoken at three in the morning to the sound of a rider chomping.’

Rotunno espouses the benefits of a probiotic to boost immunity, especially during the third week of a Grand Tour when immune systems struggle to fend off infection – he also insists riders use hand sanitiser and fist-bump fans instead of shaking hands.

Concerns over staying healthy in the third week are why the team withdrew 21-year-old Jasper Philipsen before Stage 12. By then, one of the sport’s brightest young sprinters had already scored three top-10 finishes and arguably outshone the more experienced Alexander Kristoff.

‘We’d always planned for Jasper to pull out in the second week,’ says Rotunno. ‘We didn’t want him to burn out.’

Long day in the saddle

Preventing burnout is also the aim of Martin’s extremely long pre-TT ‘warm-up’. In Cyclist’s experience (albeit from the confines of a team car), a 240km numbingly flat parcours or Alpine stage can start at 9am from the hotel and finish nine or 10 hours later in another hotel.

But a time-trial that, in the case of Stage 13 of this year’s Tour, shouldn’t require more than 35 minutes of racing – surely it’s a swift-pedalling sojourn between breakfast and massage?

‘Sadly not,’ Martin sighs. ‘I got here just before 12. I’m off at around five. Normally I’d do the recon and head back to the hotel but La Course is on so it’s not really possible.

‘So I’ll stay in the team bus, eat, drink and relax as much as possible. If you add the cumulative time of warm-up, cool down and recon, you’re probably still looking at touching three hours of riding. You don’t have the stress of the peloton but it’s still a long day and incredibly intense.’

And incredibly hot. As the afternoon ticks by, the mercury shoots ever upwards. Martin’s warm-up is timed precisely so that he allows, in the words of San Millán, ‘three minutes to get to control where Dan will be for 10 minutes before starting’.

Martin undertakes a meticulous pre-TT effort on his turbo trainer, mixing intense efforts with periods of recovery in front of a cooling fan and a draped ice towel ensuring the warm-up doesn’t boil over. And then he starts, ready to finish within a minute of the leaders and set himself up for a stab at the podium.

It doesn’t happen. Come the finish line, a roasting Martin finishes more than two minutes behind surprise stage winner Julian Alaphilippe. He’s the physical incarnation of fatigue, the crowded media and their dictaphones failing to extract an answer from the exhausted, mute rider.

He later tells us, ‘It was the heat. By the time I’d started, temperatures had risen so much since that recon. We’ll keep working on it…’

Only they won’t, or at least not dressed in UAE livery anyway. Martin will go on to ride into Paris in 18th place overall. For a rider who has two top 10 Tour finishes and has won two stages, it is a disappointment, arguably even more so as he finishes behind 14th-placed Aru.

Less than three weeks later, Martin announces he will join Israel Cycling Academy as GC leader for the 2020 season. It comes as a surprise to many people, as it means a drop down from WorldTour to ProContinental level, although at the time of Cyclist going to press the Israeli team is poised to buy out Katusha and guarantee themselves a WorldTour slot.

Yet the move becomes more understandable when viewed in the light of UAE’s newest shining star. At the age of 20, Tadej Pogaçar has already proved himself a cycling phenomenon. The Slovenian came third overall at this year’s Vuelta a España after winning three stages, in the process helping his new team to more than double their win tally from 2018.

It could, and surely would, have been more if star sprinter Fernando Gaviria, signed from Deuceninck-QuickStep in the off-season, hadn’t endured an injury-plagued season.

With young Philipsen also on the roster and new recruits for 2020 including Bora-Hansgrohe’s Davide Formolo, at 26 potentially riding into the peak of his career, UAE Team Emirates could realistically challenge the likes of Team Ineos and Jumbo-Visma for Grand Tour victories in the near future.

The academic appliance of science might not appeal to all, but it seems the sums might just be adding up.

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