Second and third on stages and third overall in the Tour de l’Ain, Dan Martin believes he is in the perfect position heading into a major objective, the Vuelta a España.
The Irish pro has had a complicated year, falling in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège while in a position to win and then crashing out on the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia. He missed the Tour de France, due partially to a lack of racing after fracturing his collarbone in the Giro crash, then started to rebuild his form.
His sensations in the Tour de l’Ain ensure that he was upbeat when he spoke to CyclingTips after the French event.
“Mentally, I am in probably in the best shape I have been,” he said, sounding psyched. “In the Tour last year I went in in top form. This year I really think I am getting better every day towards the race, and that is a really exciting prospect, as far as being able to build form as the race goes on.
“The third week is going to be really difficult so it is going to be really important to go in really fresh. I think I have got that advantage over everybody after obviously not having raced much this year.”
Martin’s strong overall position in the Tour de l’Ain was based largely on two stages. He was third on stage three to Lelex-Monts Jura and then placed second on the final stage to Arbent.
Encouragingly, he said that a clear pattern emerged during the four day 2.1 ranked event.
“I knew from training I would be going okay. I trained really hard last week. Then I rested a lot a couple of days before the race. I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. It was a hard course, obviously, but this race is all about thinking about the Vuelta.
“I am really happy with how things ended up. Every day I was getting better and better. There was a noticeable difference between Friday and Saturday. I was just improving every day. By the end of it, on Saturday, I felt really, really strong. I was really making the race and taking it to the guys on the climbs.”
Martin attacked on the final climb and went over the summit clear of the others in the race. He explained that he was wary of Omega Pharma-QuickStep rider Julian Alaphilippe, and adapted his tactics to take account of that.
When he got a gap he thought he had a chance of a stage win, but told CyclingTips that his aim was foiled by the parcours.
“I knew that Alaphilippe is faster than me in a sprint, so I guessed I needed to go a bit early. I got a good gap on the climb. I was going by the roadbook, which said it was going to be a narrow, twisting descent to the finish. However it was a false flat downhill with a block headwind for the last ten kilometres.
“The group rolled back to me. QuickStep rode a really good race and as soon as they caught me, they started one-twoing the group. That never gave me a chance to recover. I just didn’t have the legs to follow Alaphilippe when he went.”
The Frenchman hit the line five seconds clear of the chasing group, which was led in by Martin. He would have liked to have won, but was greatly encouraged nevertheless.
“To get second on the stage after the hard day the day before…I am really happy about the result, even if what was most important was less about the result and more about the sensations. But to come away with a result as well is kind of cool.
“I was really happy with the legs I had and how good I was feeling,” he added, recognising that if there had been a climb all the way to the line he likely would have held on.
Martin has good past experience in the Spanish Grand Tour, winning a stage and taking thirteenth overall in 2011. Last year was frustrating, though, due to a crash on stage seven which left him concussed and forced him to withdraw.
He’s hoping for better luck this time round and, providing he gets that, appears to have the form and confidence to do something good.
Martin believes the Tour de l’Ain was the ideal way to build up towards the Spanish event. “It is good to have that bit of intensity just before the race, on the last weekend,” he said. “It was obviously quite short distances so I am not really, really tired after the race. But it still stung the legs and was a really good test.”
He planned to take things easy after the Tour de l’Ain, then to head to the start of the Vuelta on Tuesday. Two days of time trial practice will follow on Wednesday and Thursday, getting the Garmin-Sharp technique ready for Saturday’s group opener, and also helping to fine-tune the riders’ form.
Asked for his goals in the Spanish race, he didn’t give specifics. Instead, he relied on some humour to deflect any predictions.
“I think the main aim is to finish this time,” he said, laughing, “as I have made a habit of crashing out of these races. The main aim is to finish, then we’ll see what the result is.”
The race features plenty of climbing and should suit him well; in addition to that, he believes the time trial should also suit his characteristics. However he admits that he hasn’t obsessed about the parcours. “I haven’t paid a lot of interest to the course, really. I haven’t looked at it too much,” he said. “I didn’t really want to think about it too much until after the Tour de l’Ain and the preparation.
“I do think the shorter distances suit me. It is not like the Giro, it is not like it becomes a diesel slog in the last week. You don’t get that real emptiness in the last week. It makes the racing a lot more explosive and that suits my character as well.”
He is heading into the race as co-captain, sharing the pressure with former Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal. Martin said that the Canadian has told him that he is feeling “really good” in training and is motivated. “Poland was his first race since the Giro and he would have been up there if he didn’t have a bit of cramp on the mountain days.
“He is definitely in good shape. In fact, Ryder is always good. You can always rely on him. It is going to be nice. Andrew [Talansky] is a true professional, he will be good. Obviously Cardoso is climbing well this year as well.
“To have at least three of us, maybe four, sniffing around the mountains is going to be great. To have that strength in numbers is something that this team has rarely seen in the past. It is going to be exciting to be up there in the race with such a strong team.”
His excitement about the race is based partially on that, but also on his own sensations. With days to go until the start, he believes he is exactly where he needs to be. After a tough season, that’s a nice realisation.
“It is looking quite good at the moment. I am feeling really healthy, definitely the best I have felt this year. It is exciting.”