Dan Martin: ‘Cycling is quite boring to watch. It has become prescriptive’

As he gets used to life in retirement, the Irish rider talks about the unhealthy demands of professional cycling

“There were moments when I was in France and I was like: ‘Maybe they’re right, maybe I should stop eating,’” Dan Martin says as he remembers an early example of him refusing to surrender to the unhealthy demands of professional cycling. Martin, who recorded top‑10 finishes at five Grand Tours and won stages at the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, had been rejected by Dave Brailsford and British Cycling despite being a national junior champion. He turned pro in France instead where he soon discovered a sport in which cyclists are often treated as machines rather than human beings.

After Martin won the Valle d’Aosta time trial in 2006 his road captain said: “Imagine what you would be capable of if you were two kilos lighter.” Martin also recalls “scary sayings like ‘eating is cheating’”.

Martin dismissed such dangerous talk with calm determination. He had already switched nationality to Ireland, where his mother was born. Stephen Roche, his Irish uncle, had won the Tour and the Giro in 1987 but at Christmas lunches the young Martin saw the great old cyclist tucking into his turkey like “an ordinary man”. So Martin’s insistence on following his own path was rooted in logic.

“Without proper food I would feel rubbish on the bike and it always came back to my philosophy as to why I raced. For enjoyment. If I need to live like a monk to be a good bike rider, I don’t want to do it. Maybe if I had gone to Tenerife and lived in a volcano at altitude for three weeks before the Tour de France every year I might have been a bit better. But maybe I wouldn’t still be in love with cycling.”

Martin, who retired a year ago this month, has written a memoir full of the warmth, sharp insights and vivid colour of his 14-year career. If he was eventually worn down by the remorseless money-driven teams in cycling today, Martin has retained his enthusiastic and intelligent approach to life on a bike. It includes a bracing rejection of doping.

The Giro d'Italia route for 2023 has been unveiled in Milan, with more than 70km of time-trialling and a gruelling final week in a race Alberto Contador has labelled '10 star' and 'exceptional'.

'It is a really difficult Giro,' the two-time former winner added, while defending champion Jai Hindley said he 'really likes the look of the route' as the Australian weighs up whether to defend his title.

'The whole race looks interesting,' Hindley added. 'The organisers have put a lot of work in and made a fantastic route.' The 26-year-old may still opt for a debut run at the Tour de France, but an increase in time trials could tempt other heavyweights to take part.

Next year's race will run from 6-28 May and begins with an 18.4km time trial on the Adriatic coast in Abruzzo. The 21-stage tour will also feature 51km of climbs and seven summit finishes, with the key final stages in the Dolomites before a 115km circuit stage in Rome.

We cover all these subjects – including Martin’s concern for young riders today – but first he reflects on an initially “devastating” moment. When he was 18 and one of the leading young cyclists in Britain, Martin was told that Brailsford had “nothing” to offer him. “It set me a challenge to prove him wrong and make it anyway,” he says.

Martin, who grew up on a council estate in Tamworth, was a close contemporary with Geraint Thomas and he even beat the future Tour de France winner to secure the junior Tour of Wales. But, unlike Thomas and Bradley Wiggins, Martin rejected Brailsford’s insistence that, then, young cyclists needed to give up the road for the track at the outset of their careers. Track cycling led to Olympic medals which raked in money. But, as Martin writes: “I needed the sky. I wanted to feel the rain and sun on my skin. I wanted to see the silhouettes of trees.”

His father, Neil, was also a professional cyclist, and so, Martin says: “I was educated that it’s not superhuman to be a professional bike rider. It’s just normal. Even though I was useless in 2005, and struggling at the back of races, I still knew I was going to end up at the Tour. Since I started riding at 14 it was recognised, because of the way I pedalled or the way I could suffer, that there was something different about me.”

Martin in action at the Tour de France in 2021.
Martin in action at the Tour de France in 2021. Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

That individual difference was often glorious. In 2013, as Brailsford’s Team Sky exerted their choke-hold on the Tour, Martin managed a stage win. He raced aggressively against Sky’s methodical black phalanx and “drove a wedge into the Tour’s seemingly impregnable force”. In victory, Martin “remembered why I never wanted to be part of Team Sky – I loved the attacking style of racing above all”.

Martin has genuine respect for Thomas and Chris Froome but he also describes Team Sky’s riders, at the height of their domination, as “robots”. He hated the idea of becoming robotic himself but, as he says of Thomas who still rides with Team Ineos which took over Sky: “Geraint is one of the toughest men I’ve ever met. The sacrifice he puts himself through for six months leading up to the Tour is incredible. I was physically gifted, with the potential to win a Tour, but did I have the mental capacity to put myself through that sacrifice to win a Grand Tour? I don’t know.”

Tour de France 2013: Dan Martin wins stage nine.

Martin recalls how he, Thomas and Froome were all in doping control on the penultimate day of the 2018 Tour. He had won another stage that year and, demob happy, they spoke about food. While Martin drooled over the burger he would devour after the Tour, Thomas and Froome were excited about the prospect of “a good salad”. They hadn’t eaten one “for three weeks because of the fibres that lead excess water to be retained in the digestive tract”. The 36-year-old adopted Irishman shakes his head. “It shows the extremes, and their psychological strengths. Chris and Geraint went well beyond their physical capacity by being incredibly focused.”

Earlier that year Brailsford had approached Martin to say he wanted him to join Sky. Martin was briefly intrigued but resolved to steer clear of a team that he says sucked the joy out of cycling. “That’s why I stopped riding this time last year – because the sport was becoming so controlled. I’d lost my advantage because every cyclist now is told exactly what they’re doing and each team’s methodology is the same. I want to be able to decide why, when and what training I do and what tactics I use. If I had gone into that [Sky] team, I wouldn’t have enjoyed myself.”

These deeply personal memories open up Martin’s concern about the way so much colour has been drained from cycling. “It’s the freedom of expression as well. That freedom to attack. Racing is quite boring to watch now as nobody makes mistakes any more. Everything is so fine-tuned you don’t see guys having bad days. Everybody is nutritionally perfect, training is perfect, and it’s lacking that human element. Racing has become quite prescriptive.”

Martin’s favourite current cyclist is Tadej Pogacar – whom he calls “a miraculous rider”. They first rode together in January 2018, when the Slovenian was 19, and since then Pogacar has won the Tour de France twice, in his first two attempts at the race.

This year he was beaten, surprisingly, into second place by Jonas Vingegaard. “Even though people say it’s the best racing ever,” Martin suggests, “it’s really down to Pogacar. He is the loose cannon who attacks whenever he feels like it, whereas the rest of the racing is so scripted and controlled.”

A stream of young riders are winning important races but Martin believes the demands made on them are unsustainable. “Pogacar comes back to the idea of romantic cycling. I still talk to him quite often and he seems to enjoy racing his bike and that’s why he does almost every race on the calendar. But at the same time he’s got the weight of the team on him and you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes as even younger riders are coming through. His team is preparing for the future even though Pogacar is only 24. So the question of longevity is already there for him. When I was riding, a team would have taken Pogacar and said: ‘Right, he’s our guy for the next 10 years.’ Now you have these incarnations, these super-teams, with the resources to have five young riders behind him, ready to replace him as soon as he dips. I’ve heard stories of 16‑year‑olds doing 30 hours training a week. They’re already training like hardened pros.”

It sounds like he has sympathy for young cyclists today. “My sympathy lies with the guys who have to make more sacrifices than I ever did just to be in the peloton. Just to be on the start line in the Tour you have to do altitude training camps, honed nutrition, you need to be super, super, skinny. You have to be doing what Team Sky did. But I got top 10 in the Tour de France, training out of my front door every day. Today that’s not possible.

“It’s OK for the guys making a huge sacrifice who are getting paid crazy amounts of money, like Pogacar. But domestiques are getting paid potentially less than they would have been 10 years ago, but they’re having to make many more sacrifices. That’s what worries me.

Dan Martin poses for a portrait in London overlooking the River Thames.
Dan Martin: ‘I retired still loving riding my bike, and loving racing, and that was a very fortunate position.’ Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“Look at Tom Dumoulin. He continued racing the last two years, but he wasn’t the same. He essentially retired two years ago at the age of 29. Fabio Aru, an incredible talent, also retired at 30. These guys made this huge commitment and sacrifice, and were phenomenal young riders, but it was unsustainable. Guys like me had a sustainable way of racing that meant you could stay competitive for a long time. Those days are over.

“You see pictures of me when I was a first-year pro in 2008, 22 years old and looking like I’m 15. In modern cycling I might never have made it to where I did – because I wouldn’t have been allowed the time to develop. How many talented riders are we going to lose now?”

As always in cycling, as standards rise, questions of doping are rife. With teams obsessed by Team Sky’s old mantra of “marginal gains” surely the temptation to dope is higher than ever? “We have to trust the authorities are doing a good job and we’re not seeing many positive returns etcetera etcetera. That’s the party line.

But, personally, I didn’t really see any difference in the testing process throughout my career. From 2011 to 2021 it didn’t really change. I presume that testing has got more advanced but it’s hard to know if it’s working.

“I was probably tested less as my career went on. I would hope that was because they were testing other potentially suspect guys because I had years of a rock‑steady biological passport. But, throughout the history of testing, the cheats have always been ahead of the testers. You’ve also got young riders coming in and I don’t know whether they have that same scarring we had. They haven’t lived through a severe doping scandal like we did. It’s an impossible job, almost [to catch all the dopers], but I do believe they’re doing their best with the resources they have. But you have to ask: ‘Is anything being taken now that’s not yet banned?”

Away from such murky terrain, Martin sounds blissfully happy with his family in Andorra where he is working in a new investment business and about to publish his first book.

“I retired still loving riding my bike, and loving racing, and that was a very fortunate position. It was an amazing lifestyle and cycling’s been incredible to me. I was lucky that it was once possible to ride a bike on your own terms and with a smile on your face.”

Dan Martin’s Chased by Pandas is published by Quercus.


Donald McRae

The GuardianTramp

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