With a former British amateur champion for a father and the sister of a Tour de France winner for a mother, there was little question that Daniel Martin would be a cyclist when he grew up.
Maria Roche — sister of 1987 Tour De France winner Stephen Roche — brought baby Daniel to watch his professional cyclist dad Neil Martin race for the first time when he was just 10 days old, and he reckons he has been at a bike race almost every weekend since. Born in Birmingham, England, Martin junior spent his formative years racing in the UK and even became British junior (U18) road race champion in 2004.
By the time he had turned senior two years later, Martin was an integral part of the Irish national team. Having declared for the homeland of his mother, Martin was based in Marseille with top amateur team VC La Pomme and was fast becoming one of the most-sought-after young riders by the pro squads.
Although he had shown enough promise to be offered a professional contract for 2007, Martin decided to stay amateur for another year.
“I wanted to continue to progress, to learn how to win races and to make sure I was ready when the time came to turn pro,” said Martin after his victory at the Tour of Poland on Saturday.
2007 saw him win the GP Rayol Canadel and the Tour de Savoie for La Pomme in France. Regarded as one of the best climbers of his generation, Martin also won the King of the Mountains at the Ronde de l’Isard in France, taking second place on two mountaintop finishes. It was enough to attract the attention of the big boys. However, the 20-year-old opted to sign for a new, little-known American outfit —Team Slipstream, now known as Garmin-Transitions.
The newly formed squad took a fresh approach to professional cycling. Staunchly anti-doping, it was the first team to introduce internal drug testing. They also put an emphasis on doing the best you could, rather than winning at all cost.
“A lot of people were surprised when I signed for them but everybody that joined this team believed that we could be one of the biggest teams in the world,” said Martin.
“I knew we were going to ride clean, with our own internal doping controls on top of the usual UCI ones, and one of the beliefs of the team is that it’s not all about winning. It’s about enjoyment as well and that’s very important to me.
“When I came here it was a very small team, a very young team, and I was a very young rider trying to learn his way. We’ve grown up together. I had a year where I didn’t ride any ProTour races at all. The next year I did a few of them and now, this year, I’ve actually won a ProTour stage race.”
Indeed, Martin became the first Irish rider to do so when he took overall victory by a mere eight seconds at the weeklong Tour of Poland. It was a victory born of talent and teamwork and gave yet another glimpse of Martin’s massive potential.
The learning curve
As a neo-professional in 2008, Martin had surprised many with his climbing and stage racing ability when he won the mountainous four-day Route du Sud in the Pyrenees against far more experienced opposition. He then came home to win the Irish senior road race championships in Cork, simply riding away from the rest of the field, which included cousin and fellow professional Nicolas Roche. At 21, he also took the U23 championship in the same race.
In 2009, he continued the upward learning curve, taking second overall at the Tour of Catalonia and third at the Tour of the Med, winning the best young rider competition. He took fifth in the GP Plouey and eighth at the Tour of Lombardy but victory proved elusive.
“I’ve been really frustrated because I’ve had this problem with allergies the past year or two,” says Martin. “We don’t really know what the problems are yet but we’re really going to look into it over the winter.
“It’s something that always happens to me. I always have a bad period in March or April where I haven’t been able to get top form. I don’t have any top end. Basically, I’m lacking 10 beats from the top end of my heart rate. Instead of being able to go to 185 or 190, my heart rate only goes to 175.
“This year, the way the weather was, the winter was a bit longer and it started to affect me in May. I know I’m doing everything right, training hard, resting and eating properly but something is just getting in the way and it’s very frustrating. We have a great sports science team at Garmin-Transitions though and we’re going to do lots of tests in the winter to find out what the cause is. It might just be a biological-rhythm thing. We’re going to try and find out every possible cause. That’s another reason I’m at this team, because I feel they can really help me achieve my potential.”
This season, Martin completed his first Giro d’Italia in May, took bronze at the Irish national championships in Sligo and won the Halfords Tour Series criterium in Dublin. After a short break he stepped up a notch to finish third overall at the four-day Brixia Tour in Italy last month and went into the Tour of Poland as team leader of the Garmin-Transitions squad.
“I really feel that the Brixia Tour and Poland were the first races that I’ve hit top form,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to get back to the level I know I can achieve for my own personal confidence. All I ever want to do is go to the races and do my best. If something stops that, it’s so frustrating.
“I’m lucky to have a team around me that has faith in me and believes in me. When I saw the course for Poland, I actually asked the team to do it. I knew that I’d be going well and it was a course that suited me. That became my objective for the second part of the season.
“I knew that after the Giro, the Vuelta (Tour of Spain) would be too much for me. I’m still only 23, I’m 24 next week, so it was good to have a one-week stage race as an objective as I felt it was an achievable goal. Winning the thing overall was a different story. I didn’t go into the race expecting to win. I just went in to try and do my best and see whatever that brought. Obviously we went there with a really strong team and that meant that when I got the yellow jersey, I was able to keep it with their help. I’m so grateful to the guys for the work they did this week. ”
Martin makes his victory in Poland sound easier than it was. The foundations of his win were laid on stage 5, when Martin took advantage of a great piece of team riding that placed him in front of the race at the bottom of the final climb to the finish.
Four kilometers from the summit, Martin made good use of his rake-thin frame and huge power-to-weight ratio to simply leave the rest of the race for dead and solo to victory by 20 seconds. He was race leader by 14 seconds but he had two more tough stages to go if he wanted to win the race outright.
“When I won the stage, it was incredible but I wasn’t really happy with that,” says Martin. “Deep down inside, I knew if I won the stage that I would probably take the jersey. Even though I showed on the climb that I was one of the fastest guys in the race, it’s a different story when you’ve got the yellow jersey and all these guys are trying to beat you. I had 12 guys within a minute of my lead so I knew there was a storm coming, but the team were just unbelievable. A lot of other teams came up to me and said what an incredible job the team did for me on the last two stages.”
Although his advantage had been cut by the finish of another very hilly stage on Friday, the young Garmin-Transitions team rode themselves into the ground to keep Martin in yellow, only running out of steam on the final incline to the finish with three kilometers remaining. In the pouring Polish rain, Martin dug deep to finish seventh on the stage and went into Saturday’s final leg with an eight-second advantage over Grega Bole (Lampre).
Teamwork and a triumph
“With just eight seconds’ lead we didn’t want to start celebrating too early,” says Martin of the final leg. “We tried to think of every eventuality that could happen on the last stage and planned for every possible scenario.
“We knew that Bole could win both bonus sprints and if he got third on the stage he could take the win. We had Maurilo Fischer, who’s a really fast sprinter, and we were pretty sure he could beat Bole in the bonus sprints. We figured that Lampre would try and drop all of the sprinters to give Bole the best chance at the finish.
“In the end we had a hard day. Allesandro Ballan (fourth overall) attacked a couple of times, a big group attacked at the start and we got kind of lucky because some of the big teams missed it, Lampre included, and they rode hard to bring it back. We could have been in trouble but it turned out well.”
With a non-threatening breakaway group mopping up the bonus seconds up ahead, Martin’s teammates patrolled the peloton all day.
“They let a breakaway go and then they controlled it for over 140kms, over really hard terrain. When it started raining on the finishing circuits, that made me nervous, but with five kilometers to go, I still had two teammates with me and it showed the strength in depth we have on this team. The guys had done so much of the work for me that I felt pretty fresh and the last 20km were pretty easy.
“For me, obviously, it’s a huge win, but for Garmin-Transitions, it’s their first ProTour stage race win too, which is massive.”
A cousin of Ag2r pro Nicolas Roche, Martin lives in Girona, Spain, with Philip Deignan (Cervélo TestTeam), a fellow Irishman and Vuelta España stage winner. All three have come through the VC La Pomme amateur team and have all won major races and are slowly moving up the world rankings.
“I just hope it boosts the sport of cycling in Ireland. The more we can achieve, the more popular it’s going to get,” says Martin. “We’ve all got big results in big races and proved it’s possible to win races, and possible to do it clean as well. Hopefully we can inspire some kids to try and make it as a professional bike rider and maybe get the Tour of Ireland back. I think there’s definitely a market in Ireland for a big bike race.”
His team manager, Jonathan Vaughters, has long touted Martin as a future Tour de France contender, although the youngster has not had much luck in making it to the start line yet. In 2009, he was forced off the team the night before the Tour with a knee injury. This year he was a late call-up to ride the Giro, not giving him enough time to recover for the Tour.
“I think if they asked me to ride the Tour de France next year, I‘m ready for it now,” says Martin. “The problem with having one of the strongest teams in the peloton is that it‘s very hard to get on the Tour team. I wouldn’t just ride the Tour for the sake of it, though. I would have to know that I was going well enough to be an asset to the team, whether that means helping Christian Vande Velde in the mountains or going for stage wins myself, it doesn’t matter. I know I can be a lot of help to Christian and I also know that if I’m good enough they’ll take me.
“It’s a long way away, though and there are a lot of races in between. Once I can keep enjoying my cycling, I’m happy enough. Winning is a bonus, though. It’s all about enjoyment.