After his brilliant 2013 season, Dan Martin is one of the most visible riders in the WorldTour peloton. He won the Volta a Catalunya, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a mountain stage of the Tour de France, and had some near-misses at the Flèche Wallonne, Il Lombardia and Tour of Beijing, and ended the world rankings in sixth place, right behind Vincenzo Nibali and one ahead of Fabian Cancellara. That’s heady company, but the 27-year-old Irish racer remains one of the sport’s most easy-going and accessible athletes.
But just when you think you know everything about Martin, he surprises you with another little-known fact about his life or cycling career. That was the case when the Garmin-Sharp team leader spoke to peloton earlier this year. Here are some of those hidden stories.
You were born and grew up in Birmingham, England; your father is the former British road race champion Neil Martin, your mother Maria is the sister of former Tour de France and world champion Stephen Roche; and you were the British junior road champion in 2004. Why did you choose to become Irish?
I always kind of felt Irish. I was British because I was at school there, and it was easy to ride the national series, national championships and all that… Since I was 14, the Irish [cycling officials] were always asking me to be Irish. Then at the 2005 worlds, I was still British at that point and I thought I should have been selected [for the under-23 national team]—especially as it was quite a hilly course and I’d ridden for the national team a few times and done really well. So when I didn’t get selected I said I’ll change. And I haven’t looked back since. [Also, the British system was track oriented.] It was either take up the track or we can’t help you. And I was never interested in taking up the track….
You say that you really like racing, but that’s not the same with everyone. Where does that come from? From you family background or the Garmin team?
It’s an instinct inside me. I’m an actual bike racer. A lot of guys, like Team Sky have been doing, ride looking at their power meters. I never look at power, I never train by power. I check my heart rate…but I race by instinct and feeling. When I attacked on stage 9 in the Tour, that attack was not planned at all. I didn’t even think about it. It just kind of happened. And afterwards, it was like: Yes, this feels right.
I don’t think I’ve ever been the strongest guy in a race, but I’ve won quite a few races. I think it’s down to, if anything, that tactical way of racing I’ve had to learn from a very young age. When I was a junior, I had to learn how to beat guys tactically whereas a lot of young guys are so strong at a young age and they have the horsepower… Even my first year in Marseille [with French amateur team La Pomme], I was 18 and already pretty much doing pro races—and I got my ass kicked the whole time. So just to survive I had to learn how to ride in the peloton. And now all these guys are amazed how little energy I use when I’m in the peloton. I did the baby Giro when I was 19, and it was so, so hard. Obviously, in hindsight, now you know what was going on in Italy [with doping]…and I had to learn how to learn techniques that enabled me to win races.
Here’s a question about the allergies that held you back over the years. What did you do to get over those?
I was always taking an anti-allergy inhaler, the normal spray-type method, and I read somewhere on the Internet you can be allergic to the spray, from the carrier in the spray. And it turned out that’s what it was. I went to a specialist when I didn’t get selected for the Tour in 2011, and now I’ve got a disc that you inhale instead of blowing it into your throat. And since then it’s worked. That’s why last year for the first time I performed in the Ardennes classics. That’s always the hardest part of the year for allergies, April-May. So that was the first time I could ride to my potential in the Ardennes. It paid off again this year [at the Flèche and Liège].
You once said that you’d rather quit the sport than do training at altitude. Is that true?
My whole philosophy is the way I live my life—I’m probably gonna shoot myself in the foot here and [Garmin team boss] Jonathan [Vaughters] won’t pay me anymore! Cycling’s a hard sport, and if I have to make too many sacrifices, then I don’t want to do it. I’ve found a happy medium. I’m not saying I go out and get drunk every week, or whatever. If I want a beer I’ll have a beer. For me, I’ve found the altitude-training thing doesn’t really work. I’m not going to go and stay at altitude for three weeks in isolation. I just don’t find it works.
I mean, I love training in the mountains. I went to the Dolomites at the end of May, but we weren’t staying at altitude. We were staying at 700 meters (just over 2,000 feet). I don’t think we need [to stay at altitude]. I think it did as much good as training at altitude. The physical effect of the altitude is balanced out by how psychologically happy I am staying at home. In my environment at home in Girona, Spain, I love my training, I love my town, my house and everything…. I’m so much more relaxed there. That mental break and the relaxation counteracts the physical effects of staying at altitude.
And I seem to be lucky enough to be able to perform at a high enough level the way I’m doing things, and what I’ve found works for me. I guess I’m not going to change things and try something different just for the sake of it, for the sake of trying to improve more. I’ve known riders who’ve come down from altitude and sucked.
But unlike the Sky team leaders Chris Froome and Brad Wiggins you’re also performing at a high level in one-day races….
That’s maybe a bit of a difference as well, because I love racing. I’m not saying that Chris doesn’t…he does altitude and stage races. I prefer racing all year from February to October. This year, Jonathan asked me why didn’t I go to altitude in May/June…but I haven’t got time between races. I want to race as much as possible. I do enjoy training but not those long periods. I really enjoy the one-day races. The explosiveness that I’ve got and the reason I won that Tour stage [in the Pyrénées] is due to doing one-day races …and you lose a lot of that [explosiveness] from the altitude training. Hopefully, I’m going to have a long career and I’ve found a lifestyle that’s sustainable.
Talking of that stage win in the Pyrénées, you said that it was on the Val Louron climb that you first saw the Tour in person in 1999 when you were 13 and cycle touring with your dad. Did that memory inspire you?
Not really, but it was a bizarre moment climbing that hill because I remember it clearly, standing there waiting to see the Tour [14 years ago]…it was nearly the same course. We could see them come over the Peyresourde and all the way down into the valley…. It was similar conditions, a similar course. And it was pretty special to do that. It’s an area that’s really been good to me. When I won the Route du Sud [in 2008], the mountain stage we did kind-of ran the opposite way, finishing on Superbagnères. I love it, the Pyrénées. I remember that ’99 stage pretty clearly. It was just five of them at that point and [Fernando] Escartin in the old Kelme colors went on to win at Piau-Engaly….
After your stage win, a lot of people were expecting you to do well on Mont Ventoux, which was the next mountain stage, even though it was a week later. But you only finished 14th, more than two minutes behind Froome, 50 seconds after Contador, and just behind Valverde, Rogers and Mollema. What happened there?
I showed in the Pyrénées that I’m stronger on a day with lots of climbs, rather than just the one climb at the finish. And I was limited on the Ventoux because of the heat. I put some water over by back, ice cold, with like 10K to go, and I felt so good for 2K, and then I overheated again. My legs went when it got really hot in one section of the climb. I was really suffering with the heat, my body was just cooked…. I was really good until four hours, and once we got into that fifth hour it felt like my brain had been boiled. I was kind of a little bit dizzy and a little bit delirious. With a 46-kph pace for the first four hours it was hard to eat and drink, especially getting the fluids down, when you’re going that hard all day.
And my legs too just couldn’t go with the heat. The pace was that little bit too hard for me, so I decided to slip into my own rhythm. In hindsight, just after I let the gap go, everybody else sat up so I ended doing the whole of the climb 15 seconds behind those guys. I now know that if I’m suffering they’re just about to let the wheel go too. So had I held them for another 30 seconds or so I would have finished with those guys. It was a bit disappointing but I was also surprised at how good I was. If the guys had said at the bottom of the climb that I’d only lose two-and-a-half minutes to Chris, I would have taken it because I really didn’t feel good at all.
Lastly, Dan, tell us a little about the charity work you do with Temple Street Children’s University Hospital in Dublin….
The daily running of the hospital is paid for by the government, but everything else depends on charity. The charity doesn’t give them money but asks what machines do you want? So I was lucky enough to visit them last year. I saw a premature baby, six weeks old, in an incubator that had the name of the charity written on it. And I was prematurely born, by five and a half weeks. That’s the whole story too: I was that baby in the incubator.
They approached me to be like a patron of the charity…. The brother of one of the guys who was on the national team runs the charity, Cycle4Life, sponsored by D.I.D Electrical. One of the guys they know in their local cycling club, his kid was really, really sick and spent four or five months in Temple Street Hospital; he was born with like no lungs…. So I signed a few jerseys for them, and they auctioned them off, and I’ve been heavily involved since then. This last May I was there for the charity cycle ride, with the distances from 70K down to 600 meters for the little kids. I spent the day with them, and a thousand people paid 80 euros each at the dinner. I think we raised 210,000 euros in that one day….
The head surgeon in the ICU was on the La Redoute climb when I won Liège, and a lot of the nurses and staff ride bikes. And now the T-shirts that were made [with the image of the man in the panda suit chasing me at Liège] is a little thing I can do. I got to visit again in May, and it was really cool to see the kids, who made me a good luck card for the Tour. It’s special, and the little bit I can do to help them is important…. That 210,000 euros is going towards renewing the ward they call the Top Flat at the hospital that hasn’t been renovated for 70 or 80 years. And a special unit of the hospital will be named after this charity and maybe for me.
When Dan Martin was in Dublin last week he tweeted: “Great to visit Temple Street Hospital today and see the progress made on the renovated ward and where the cycle4life money has gone.” It’s a charity close to his heart—just one of the Irishman’s hidden sides.
You can follow John on twitter.com @johnwilcockson