Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by SWpix.com
Suddenly, there is a touch of autumn in the air. The Vuelta is all but over – thrilling to the last with yet another wild and woolly stage on Friday won by Magnus Kort Nielsen – the Tour of Britain is on us, the World’s are just round the corner, after which it’s Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of Lombardy and a straight run through to Christmas.
There will be the usual run of retirements, which began last Friday with Kirsten Wild’s Covid-enforced career ending, and which continued on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage with news that Dan Martin will hang up his wheels at the end of this season.
I will miss Martin in 2022. He’s a predictably unpredictable bike racer who has made a career out of making things happen. The first time I saw him in action was at the Tour of Britain in 2010, when he made a massive effort to win the stage over the Quantock hills and into Glastonbury. It didn’t work out, but no one minded; most of those present were trying to figure out how the new kids on the block, Team Sky, and their hugely expensive leader Bradley Wiggins, had contrived to lose the stage to a little known Italian, Marco Frapporti.
Martin was already in his third year as a pro, and it’s one measure of how long the Irishman has been around that he pre-dates the entire Sky/Ineos era. Another is to check out the line-up of the 2010 Garmin-Transitions team (who can forget the slogan Always the Right Protection for Your Eyes): Martin is, by my estimate, the last man standing. He’s never been a prolific winner, but he’s always had the trick of winning memorably, winning big, and winning races prestigious enough to forge a career to be proud of.
Over the years, Jonathan Vaughters’s teams have built a reputation for a buccaneering approach to racing, often targeting stage wins as well as or instead of GC; we’ve seen it to great effect in this Vuelta with Kort Nielsen. Martin, I’d argue, played a key role in forging that style in his eight seasons at the team. You could point to his pedigree – the nephew of 1987 Tour winner Stephen Roche, the son of Milk Race stalwart Neil Martin – but it’s far more than genetics.
A week ago I wrote about the breed of bike racers that I think of as stage hunters, and Martin was one of that crew. He was good enough to finish in the top 10 of a Grand Tour – he managed six top 10s with a best of fourth in last year’s Vuelta – but his stage wins stick in my mind more: the first at the Tour de France in 2013 at the end of an absolutely brutal stage through the Pyrenees, last year’s at the Vuelta when he outsprinted the two strongest riders in the race, Primoz Roglic and Richard Carapaz, and this year’s at the Giro, when he had the legs and the guts to hold off the GC group on the Sega di Ala finish.
In 2017, Martin might have made the podium in the Tour, but for a couple of pieces of ill fortune. He explained his approach to racing to me towards the end of the race. “It’s all on circumstance, although I’m a lot more calculating this year. Last year I attacked quite recklessly sometimes. I’m using attacks with more purpose this time,” he said. “You need to have an idea of what’s going to happen but, if you have a plan in your head before the start, then you possibly miss opportunities that arise.”
Sometimes, he has had the famed ill luck of the Irish: at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2014 he hit a patch of oil when poised to win for the second year running. In Belfast later that year, there was the slippery drain cover in the Giro’s team time trial opener, that left him with a broken collar bone.
There have been two jewels of Classic wins; 2013 at Liège and 2014 in Lombardy, both born of superb tactical instincts; positioning and timing 100% accurate, so too the ability to identify the key moment to make the move. Either could be shown to young riders as textbook examples of how to win a bike race when you are not necessarily the fastest or the most powerful.
In 2014, Martin told me: “I don’t think I’ve ever been the strongest rider in a race but I’ve won because I had to learn how to beat guys tactically when I was younger rather than just using horsepower. David Millar said to me that I am an actual bike racer and that’s rare these days. A lot of young riders ride on their power figures. I don’t even have a power meter on my bike. I never look at power, never train by power. I race a lot on instinct and feeling.” How not to admire a 21st century bike racer who rode and won with this as his credo?