Words by Sophie Smith | Photos by ASO/GOMEZSPORT
The 2020 season has been interrupted and somewhat governed by the fear-inducing COVID-19 pandemic but there is arguably at least one good thing that has come from that. Showmanship has given way to vulnerability in post-race interviews and it’s beautiful. Dan Martin’s stage three victory at the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday was a prime example.
There was a lot to take away from the mountainous run to La Laguna Negra, from Martin’s commanding sprint from the front with 200m to go, holding off Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos) to rejoin the winner’s circle, affirm himself as a title contender and further cement Israel Start-Up Nation’s place in the WorldTour.
The two-time Tour de France stage winner has confirmed but also downplayed his general classification aims at the shortened, 18-stage Grand Tour, citing his young and comparatively inexperienced team. However, the team appears to be learning fast and victory should create momentum for the 34-year-old. Plus, he, as the lone wolf of Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Tour de France Wolfpack for a couple of years, knows how to fend for himself anyway.
The best part of the performance though was not a performance at all. It was the genuine emotion that washed over Martin during a post-race interview past the finish line which moved audiences.
“I’ve come so close to winning this year. I just really wanted to win a stage for this team because they’ve been so good to me. The sponsors have supported us all through COVID. Sylvan Adams and Ron Baron, the owners, there were no salary cuts or anything like that. The team were really motivated during lockdown because of that, to train harder,” Martin said.
“Obviously with the injury at the Tour I couldn’t win a stage, but I was really determined to win a stage today. The team were amazing, and every single one of them played their part in the victory. This win is partly for them and then partly for my wife because this is the first time I’ve won a race since my kids were born and it’s really special.”
There is the odd exception but in any other year that meaning is often lost, especially on those in the industry. Champions start to describe triumph first and foremost as a “relief”. As the season goes on, interviews become banal as athletes recite lines that their team press officer, or sponsor, has strongly recommended. “We’ll take it day-by-day, the Tour is the Tour, I’m super happy, the boys did good.” Insomniacs looking for natural sleep remedies surely appreciate the grand insight.
The resilience and sincerity that Martin showed has punctuated many interviews across the board since the season resumed in August. Think Sam Bennett’s reaction after his maiden Tour de France stage win, or Mark Cavendish facing the prospect of retirement after Gent-Wevelgem. It’s as refreshing as the number of teams that have chosen an offense over defensive strategy, partly in lieu of the shadow the pandemic has cast. Every race has or is being carried out under an element of uncertainty as to whether it will reach its final destination, leading some teams by circumstance or choice to ditch the long game.
It’s a credit to the UCI and stakeholders that we have a season, many people’s livelihoods depend on it and that’s especially not been lost on the mentally fatigued riders competing across a jam-packed calendar in less than comfortable circumstances, asking that you don’t let on in stories that they are fried.
In addition to normal race demands is the increased risk of exposure to a deadly virus, intrusive COVID-19 tests every few days and a sterile and more isolated environment that has worked to the advantage of some and contributed to the task list for others. Most teams have bounced back from the threat of collapse but according to rider agents there are many good cyclists still looking to secure contracts for 2021 in a teams’ market with few spots left.
Professional sport with its battles, feats and heroism serves as an escape for the general public but ironically, it’s the human rather than superhuman revelations currently gripping audiences.