So for those of you who don't understand the headline or why there's a challenge for me to accept, go back and read Chris' magnificent look at the fortunes (and indeed the fortune) of Etixx-Quickstep, soon to become Quickstep Floors. In there, he said I "might" do a post like this, and anyone who's seen me around these parts knows I don’t need an excuse to talk about the greatest Irish cyclist ever to come out of Birmingham, the only cyclist ever to become inextricably linked with a panda (although that might change in the Tour of Guangxi next year), the man who can mentally if not actually turn any race into a one-day classic...yes, it's Dan Martin.
2016 couldn't be said to have been Martin's best ever year - he only won two races, a stage of the Vuelta a Communitat Valenciana and a stage of the Volta a Catalunya, five hours up the road. Unlike his other two best seasons, in 2013 and 2014, he did not come out with a monument victory, finishing forty-seventh and forty-eighth in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia, races he has won before, respectively. But this year has seen a transition into a new Dan Martin, one more consistent and more oriented towards the general classification. This can be seen in comparing his performance in the last two Criteriums du Dauphiné. In both races, there were four mountain stages. In 2015, Dan Martin's performance was less consistent and not as good at the best of time, scoring 11th, 6th, 13th and 7th placed finishes on the way to an eventual seventh place overall. This year, he managed much better, getting 4th, 4th again, 3rd and then 2nd on the most important stages, which helped him to third position. He was closer behind the stage winners, and seemed far more comfortable. The same goes for the Volta a Catalunya, where Martin this time snagged a stage on the way to another podium finish. I was particularly struck by his riding on Port Ainé, where he was dropped by Contador, Porte and Quintana after riding in second place in the peloton up most of the climb behind one team mate, but fought to a top ten finish on the stage, allowing him to scrap for enough bonus seconds to score third place in the race. He no longer gets let off the leash enough to do what he did in 2013, but he's still providing a challenge in what he says is his favourite race.
The true test of the new, stage racing Martin came in July, where he lined up for his fourth ever Tour de France. Results of 35th in 2012, 33rd in 2013 and 39th in 2015, after crashes in the former race and sickness in the latter two did not augur well for his chances, but in the early stages of the race, Martin maintained a composed presence. He did not crash, as he has been considered prone to, and two top five finishes in the race’s opening five stages ensured that he was in the top ten going into the Pyrenees. Once there, he unleashed a performance never seen before from him, able to stick right on the wheel of Chris Froome’s attack, and then even to counter. The next day, he was aggressive again. He finished just two seconds behind Froome on Arcalis and was in third place overall on the rest day.
This Martin could not last, however. The two-day sucker punch that was stages twelve and thirteen, a Mont Ventoux (or Chalet Reynard, eventually) finish and a thirty-seven kilometre time-trial...well, sucker-punched him. He dropped from third to ninth, and never moved up in GC, with attacks that may not have been thought out or executed to perfection a hallmark of his riding late on. He still recorded a career best top ten at the race, and right in the prime of his career, will be hoping to better it in 2017.
You probably knew all that, discerning cycling fans as you clearly all are having chosen this site for your fix, and there was just, like, two jokes in those opening four paragraphs, so if you’re one of the 50% of people who got this far in the article, here comes the over-optimistic conjecture. Dan Martin absolutely can finish on the podium of the Tour de France. Here is why:
Firstly, Dan Martin will be thirty next July. That is widely agreed upon to be in the four-or-five-year “prime” of a cyclist’s career. It is also a year more experienced, with a little more riding in the legs than in 2016. All in all, thirty is an excellent year to be making an effort at the Tour de France.
Secondly, have you checked the route? There’s only thirty-six kilometres of time-trialling - the second-least in Martin’s lifetime - and while he is a very, very poor wielder of a disc wheel and a set of tri-bars, that’s a short enough distance for him to limit his losses very effectively. In Utrecht’s 14 kilometre time-trial, Martin only lost twenty-seven seconds to Chris Froome. He should only lose about the same in Dusseldorf’s 13 kilometre opening day effort. As for the 23 kilometre ride on Marseille’s twentieth stage? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but if Martin loses two minutes on Froome in both tests combined, he can consider that a box checked.
It’s not just the comparative dearth of contre-la-montre that should have Martin salivating - it’s also the mountain stages. Summit finishes are where he lost all his time in the mountains, and if you read out the names of the summit finishes coming up next year, it’s unlikely to strike fear into his heart. There’s La Planche des Belles Filles (practically perfect for him), Station des Rousses (technically not a summit finish, but the eleven kilometres of flat after the tough climb must be Martin’s dream mountain stage), Peyragudes (just the Peyresourde which I mentioned that he bossed earlier with a Martin-suiting three kilometre kick tacked on after a couple of minutes’ rest)...and the Col d’Izoard. Remember the two-day sucker-punch I mentioned earlier? The minute Dan Martin showed that he’d brought his legs to France I identified that as where he’d fall down the GC, and lo, he did. Here, there’s nothing like that. The Izoard, being a hard Alpine climb at high altitude near the end of the race is the biggest hurdle for Martin, but it’s a hurdle he has the capability to jump.
That’s not all — the race hits the Ardennes pretty heavily. You can bet your last pint of Guinness he’ll feel at home there, and there’s even a perfect hilltop finish he’ll be gunning for on stage three. Coupled with that are the 100 kilometre stage thirteen and the tactical-looking stage fifteen, which are close enough to one-dayers that Martin just might be in his element. Is that enough for him to find the three minutes that separated him from the podium in 2016? You might very well think not. That’s why Chris said he wasn’t writing it — he left it up to your mindless optimist. Chris, if you want to copy this but with Tyler Farrar, feel free.
Coming next week: Why the twelve pubs of Christmas is good for you, actually, why green IS in this year and proof that you do have leprechauns in your garden.