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Is Tony Martin the Best Time Triallist Ever?

Thursday, history could be made.

Eric Feferberg, AFP/Getty

Germany's Tony Martin is a selfish dude, when it comes to pulling on the national team kit. Yes, as a member of Omega Pharma-Quick Step he does lots of hard and effective work in the service of his teammates, and as a member of his national team he would gladly do the same for one of his countrymen, should they be available at the front end of a world championship or Olympic road race. But when it comes to the time trial, there are no rainbows for anyone else. Tony Martin insists on keeping them all.

For three years now, Martin has been the reigning world champion against the watch. It's the famous "race of truth," meaning that in some respects Martin has spent the second decade of the new millennium as the greatest cyclist on the planet. Probably not enough respects... cycling is a multi-faceted sport, after all. But whatever it is, the world time trial championship is a title he doesn't intend to relinquish anytime soon.

Just 29 years old, Martin will be going for his record fourth consecutive title, surpassing the current mark he shares with his former trade teammate Michael Rogers. While a fine and useful rider, Rogers hasn't gotten much credit lately for his work as crono champ, having made his case during a particularly dirty era (2003-05, and he succeeded good ol Santiago Botero) and against such legends as Uwe Peschel and Michael Rich. Becoming a four-time world champion would also match Fabian Cancellara's career record, though slightly superior since Cancellara's weren't consecutively.

So what does that mean? Is Tony Martin the greatest time triallist of all time?

Let's start by dealing with the obvious: if Eddy Merckx were in his prime now, there's a decent chance Martin wouldn't compare so favorably. There is no way whatsoever to know; suffice to say that Eddy was the best at everything, so if he were transported into a more technically proficient era where people specialized more carefully in the contre-le-montre, Merckx would likely have excelled in whatever was de rigeur. But that's unknowable, and in the 1960s it's not clear to me that people tried as hard to anoint a best cronoman. The worlds ITT was not instituted until 1994. So whether Martin compares favorably from riders before 1994 is frankly hard to say.

Since then, however, one can build a case. And here's the one for Martin.

  • Cancellara's world championship victories ranged from 52 seconds to 1.27; Martin's from a mere 5" to 1.15
  • Cancellara has won 12 grand tour time trials -- which are the de facto monuments of time trialling. Martin has won four.
  • Cancellara has won an Olympic gold medal, along with 33 other wins against the watch. Martin owns 32 career wins outside of grand tours and worlds, and no Olympic medals.

Wait... am I building the case for Cancellara or Martin? I guess there's no denying that until further notice Cancellara is still the king. Statistically and by the eye test, there's nothing he hasn't done or couldn't do. Martin has six wins this year and nine last year, a peak that is above any short window of success by the Swiss Bear. But beyond that, it's all Cancellara. It's worth mentioning that Cancellara has shied away from pursuing more time trial glory in favor of more interesting goals. So as unreal as his record is, it could be more so.

Martin, however, has a chance at closing the gap, even all the way. Despite only being four years apart, Martin's time trial record seems to only be growing, while Cancellara's seems like it's just about a wrap. Obviously there's the rainbow jerseys, which will be settled (or not) this week. Next, that peak performance by Martin is happening right now, after a start to his career which saw him focusing elsewhere. Little-known fact: Martin didn't contest the Worlds ITT until 2009. Even in 2008, as an established pro, Martin was selected to ride the Worlds road race, and not the time trial. Since the German team finally hit on the idea that he might be good at this, Martin has never finished out of the medals. Two bronzes, three golds. Cancellara, by contrast, raced the worlds ITT as a neo-pro. In 2006 he finally won... on his sixth try.

So back to that point about Cancellara pursuing other goals -- perhaps that's a wash. Fabian stopped early; Martin started late.

To this point Cancellara has been more dominant, but context suggests that this factor might not weigh so heavily in his favor as it appears. Here's a list of the runners-up in Cancellara's grand tour and worlds victories: Lance Armstrong (it was a prologue); Dave Zabriskie; Andreas Kloden; Lazslo Bodrogi; Kim Kirchen; Gustav Larsson; Alberto Contador; Tom Boonen; David Millar; Bradley Wiggins (prologue); and on three occasions, Martin. Guys Martin has slain along the way: Cadel Evans; Wiggins (and Cancellara at '11 and '13 Worlds); Taylor Phinney; Chris Froome; Tom Dumoulin; and Cancellara.

Fewer big wins... but Martin's milestones have tended to come against truly elite competition. Head to head the score is close to even. Phinney's challenge to Martin at the 2012 Worlds was a surprise but one that ten years from now might be easier to gauge as a great win for Martin. Meanwhile, there is no denying the strength of Froome and Wiggins. The latter is himself an Olympic champion on soil. The former has a knack for winning time trials as part of a stage-racing strategy, but convincingly enough to make you take notice. Cancellara is still around. Vasil Kiryenka keeps knocking on the door. Phinney is maybe the next big thing. It's a great era for the discipline, and Martin owns it outright at the moment.

So, tack on four more years of this sort of dominance, and then is Tony Martin the greatest cronoman of all time? The eye test says he's building his case. The numbers do too. Stay tuned.