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Chased by Pandas, by Dan Martin

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Dan Martin (Garmin) in the finale of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2013
Upstaged by a prat in a panda costume
Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty

Title: Chased by Pandas – My Life in the Mysterious World of Cycling
Author: Dan Martin (with Pierre Carrey, translated by Peter Cossins)
Publisher: Quercus
Year: 2022
Pages: 325
Order: Hachette
What it is: A chamoir from the man who won La Doyenne and the Race of the Falling Leaves back when he was one of Jonathan Vaughter’s Lost Boys, along with stages in the Vuelta and the Tour, and who completed his set of Grand Tour stage wins at the Giro while riding for the billionaire Sylvain Adams
Strengths: It’s a lyrical and romantic take on the sport
Weaknesses: At times the book comes close to dealing with darker aspects of professional cycling but backs off in favour of a warm and uplifting view of the sport

Chased by Pandas, by Dan Martin
He won Liège, he won Lombardia, he won stages in all three Grand Tours. But it’s for being chased by a fan in a panda-suit that Dan Martin is most remembered. It’s a cruel and heartless world we live in.

In 2017, as the Tour de France approached the end of its first week, French journalist Pierre Carrey wrote an article for Libération, a panegyric in letter form hymning the praises of Dan Martin, Quick-Step’s Irish puncheur. Carrey and Martin had met more than a decade before, when the Irishman was serving his apprenticeship with Vélo Club la Pomme Marseille and the Frenchman was responsible for the club’s website. For a time they both lived in the club’s shared accommodation and Carrey got to know Martin, on and off the bike.

In his Libé article, Carrey reminded Martin of those days at VC la Pomme, “a factory of champions [...], broken little guys who sacrificed their youth”. Martin was broken, physically and mentally, but came through it with his self-belief, his confidence, and his morals intact. Carrey called Martin a hero, but one who refused the title, preferred to hug the walls of the world. He saw Martin as having been part of a group of riders who opened a doorway for a better form of cycling, he saw Martin as having helped inspire other riders, including Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet.

On one level, Dan Martin’s chamois memoir (chamoir) Chased by Pandas – ghosted by Carrey – is that article stretched out to book length. It’s a lyrical, romantic take on Martin’s life and his time at VC la Pomme (2005-2007), Garmin (2007-2015), Quick-Step (2016-2017), UAE (2018-2019) and Israel Start-up Nation (2020-2021).

Martin, as just about everyone knows at this stage, has cycling in his blood. His father, Neil Martin, made it as far as ACBB, cycling’s Sorbonne for the men of the Foreign Legion in the 1970s and 1980s, before returning to the UK where he made a name for himself on the domestic circuit. His mother, Maria Roche, is the sister of Stephen Roche. According to Jonathan Vaughters, Martin’s mother’s genes are the more important, because of something to do with midichlorians and the Force. Or is it mitochondria and genetics? It could be either, when Vaughters is involved. Whichever it is, the grá for the sport, the love and the passion, that came from his father.

Tour de France, 2019: Dan Martin climbs the Tourmalet.
Tour de France, 2019: Dan Martin climbs the Tourmalet.
Tim de Waele / Getty

As a kid, family holidays took in cycling’s sacred sites:

“My first Tour de France stage was gruelling, mind-blowing, transcendent. It covered 78 kilometres and included two Pyrenean passes, and then the same route in the opposite direction. Nine hours of cycling. The sun suffocated me, but I didn’t burn. My skin stayed ghostly white. I was hungry, thirsty and shivering. Miraculously, I managed to keep my legs turning. I couldn’t have been happier in what was the summer of my seventeenth birthday.”

That was 2003 (if you’re one of those people who forever bangs on and on and on about 1989 – the year, not the Taylor Swift album – I’ll bet that makes you feel really old) and Martin was still British, not yet Irish (the following year, 2004, he came the British U18 national road race champion). So instead of going to Lourdes like everyone in Ireland, that Pyrenean holiday saw him and his family going to Luz-Saint-Saveur, 30 kilometres south and a shrine of a different kind, situated as it is at the base of the Tourmalet.

Back then, Martin believed all sorts of nonsense:

“I’d read in a book about the pass that his [the Tourmalet’s] name means ‘Bad little detour’ in the local patois, because the valley’s inhabitants were afraid of his ravines, his storms, his blizzards and even his bears. In 1910, the first time the Tour de France tackled this mountain, a rider called Octave Lapize had yelled ‘You’re assassins!’ at the race organisers as he passed them.”

Ah, the innocence of youth, when you actually believed the things you read in cycling books. Hold onto it as long as you can, folk, you’ll miss it when it’s gone.

That Tour of 2003, it’s one of the swipe-left Tours, won by Lance Armstrong and best remembered today for Jésus Manzano leaving it in an ambulance, electrodes attached to his chest. The fallout from that incident would cast a long shadow over the early years of Martin’s career, the VC la Pomme days and the early days of Garmin. But it doesn’t cast a shadow over Chased by Pandas. The “sulphurous Tours de France (1999-2005)” and the “EPO decade” are more a small stain on the carpet than excrement smeared on the walls of the sport. Operación Puerto itself is mentioned once, in passing, Martin noting that the man whose shadow he seemed to become, Alejandro Valverde, had been “implicated in the Operation Puerto doping affair”.

While Martin has spoken in interviews about how he “almost got used to seeing cyclists being led away in handcuffs”, Chased by Pandas doesn’t go to those dark places. Doping is mentioned, Martin telling us his attitude was to “avoid thinking about it”. He’s continued with that defence mechanism here by doing his best to avoid talking about it. Except to tell us how clean the sport became and how clean he is.

According to Chased by Pandas, Martin never saw doping, he was never offered drugs. He was even reluctant to take medicines for his allergies – which used to ruin his form in Spring – for fear of the side effects. As for dealing with pain, “I would take a paracetamol to help mask the fatigue and dull ache that three weeks of brutal racing inflicts on your body, but I then found out it was more of a placebo. I preferred to be in touch with my body’s messaging, to feel where my limit was, so that I could more accurately balance on the tightrope that is the upper regions of performance.”

That business about foregoing painkillers, is that really true? Interviewed by Paul Kimmage in 2017, Martin was asked about Tramadol:

PK: Another area of abuse is anti-depressants, tranquilisers and painkillers - Tramadol. So again, what is clean?
DM: What’s clean?
PK: Yeah.
DM: I took Tramadol once and it scared the crap out of me.
PK: When?
DM: The 2010 Giro. I pushed so hard, and made myself so sick that it really terrified me.
PK: A time trial?
DM: No, a long mountain stage. I didn’t know what Tramadol was before that race but again, it’s the cultural thing, “Try this.” I didn’t feel happy doing it.
PK: Because the only reason you were taking it was to enhance your performance?
DM: Yeah.
PK: That’s the only reason you were doing it?
DM: Yeah.
PK: Everybody gets pushed there.
DM: Yeah, eventually. But since then, no, apart from when I was lying in a hospital bed in agony with a broken collarbone (his Giro crash in 2014).
PK: You’ve used no other painkillers, or form of painkillers, in a race since?
DM: Paracetamol every now and again.

What Martin is telling us in Chased by Pandas and what Martin told Kimmage five years earlier, they’re substantially the same, in both he’s telling us he hasn’t really used painkillers save for the odd paracetamol every now and again. But they are also substantially different. In one story, Martin is a Simon Pure, in the other he’s been around the block, a bit. Personally, I’d prefer to know more about the guy who’s been around the block, but Chased by Pandas is more interested in the story of an innocent young man making his way in the world.

Giro d’Italia, 2014: Dan Martin (centre)
Giro d’Italia, 2014: The Giro’s Belfast start should have been a high point in Martin’s career, racing in a Grand Tour in front of Irish fans, but turned into one of its lows when he crashed during the opening time trial and broke his collarbone
Niall Carson /PA / Getty

Curiously, while Chased by Pandas paints Martin’s story in pretty pastels, Carrey’s 2017 article was a more nuanced study in light and shadow. It was explicit in the way it talked about doping, that was an important part of the article, it justified why Carrey saw Martin as a hero, he was a guy who chose to reject doping, with Carrey linking that stance to the careers of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot.

The reason Martin’s a hero in Chased by Pandas? Because he was the antithesis of Sky’s mechanised infantry. He was the guy launching reckless attacks that didn’t amount to a whole hill of beans but looked good. Then he became the guy who launched attacks with a bit more reck in them, and won. And, of course, he was the guy who escaped British Cycling’s clutches and chose to go his own way, rejected the offer of hopping on the elliptical treadmill and bringing home the bangles and the baubles on the track, chose to forge his own path on the road. He embraced his Irish heritage and was in turn embraced by Cycling Ireland, a child of the diaspora returned home.

Martin’s freewheeling approach to cycling, it extended to the dinner table, where he rejected cycling’s myth of monk-like existence. He enjoyed a glass of wine when he wanted to and didn’t obsess over every grain of rice on his plate. Chased by Pandas is pleasantly unusual in the way it talks about food. Martin may well be a 60-something kilo whippet, but he loves his food, and he loves talking about food. Here he is on a private training camp in the French Basque Country ahead of the 2018 Tour, just him and his wife, Jess:

“I was surprised when the owner of the Auberge Basque, the hotel where we were staying, had offered us a place for dinner, but had gratefully accepted; it would save us the trouble of finding another restaurant in town, a town that we soon realised was as tiny as it was pretty. On arrival we discovered that there was another good reason for making a reservation: the hotel’s restaurant was celebrated for its gastronomic qualities, which were underlined by a Michelin star.

“The Basque Country as a whole is renowned as one of the finest gastronomic regions in the world. One of the local specialities is Espelette red peppers, which are aromatic, moderately hot, sometimes with a smoky taste. The locals hang them to dry and on the outsides of their houses in the town of Espelette, which they’re named for and where the time trial was due to finish. At the Auberge Basque the menu was magnificent, from the reduction of asparagus from the garden served as a starter (accompanied by a mousseline of asparagus, dried skipjack tuna and marjoram) to the savoury version of a Basque cake, with ewe’s milk cheese replacing the cream.”

With no disrespect to Pierre Carrey, I do wonder if Martin’s literary agent, David Luxton (Brendan Gallagher’s Corsa Rosa, Peter Cossins’ Climbers, Geraint Thomas’ According to G franchise), may have missed a trick and should have brought Hannah Grant in as Martin’s ghost. There’s so much food in Chased by Pandas that I think I actually gained weight just reading it. You look at Martin, though, and there’s no hint he’s a gourmand, there’s no hint he’s ever eaten a square meal in his whole life. One thing for sure you can say about him is there’s nothing wrong with his metabolism, he’s got a fully functioning Thyroid. It makes you green with envy, doesn’t it?

Tour de France, 2019
Tour de France, 2019: ahead lies a day out in the Vosges, Sait-Dié to Colmar

With its descriptions of the profound boredom that oozed from Monaco, or the Tourmalet’s telluric faults and anarchic curves (“like a piece of spaghetti through pesto”), Chased by Pandas is definitely one of the better written chamois memoirs – even if it is another of those chamoirs where the subject’s voice is often lost behind that of the ghost – but at heart it is as light and as trivial as most of the others. Given that both Martin and Carrey have strayed further into the sport’s dark places in interviews and articles, it seems even lighter still. The modern chamois memoir, though, is more an exercise in PR and image management than it is an exploration of a sport forever telling us to ignore what goes on in the shadows and just enjoy the spectacle.

At times Chased by Pandas does try to do more than most chamoirs. Twenty of the book’s 26 chapters have the word fear in their title (“The Fear of Doping”, “The Fear of Falling Off”, etc). But, when it comes to actually discussing these fears, Martin’s not the guy for the task, his tone is just too reassuring to allow you to experience any sense of danger, his positive outlook – or his ability to deep-six his fears and not think or talk about them – takes all edge off these topics. The enduring feeling of the whole thing is of warmth and good vibes. Like you were being embraced by a big, cuddly, Panda bear. One whose sharp claws have been filed back to blunt edges.

Chased by Pandas, by Dan Martin
Chased by Pandas - My Life in the Mysterious World of Cycling, by Dan Martin (with Pierre Carrey) is published in the UK by Quercus.