I know an Arsenal fan, who for years, has bemoaned Arsene Wenger’s attitude towards the last few Champion’s League group games once Arsenal have just about qualified. When Arsenal reach nine or ten points in their group, Wenger tends to start resting key players and giving young(er) players a run out in a proper competition (unlike the rather flacid League Cup). However, by tinkering with the first team and playing experimental starting lineups Wenger is greatly affecting his team’s chance of victory. He did it last week. He made seven changes to the team that had beaten West Ham, and they went on to lose 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk.
Bear with me here, I do get to cycling eventually.
If a team finishes top of their Champion’s League group it governs the quality of opposition they will face in the first knockout round. Wenger’s attitude however, is that winning the group doesn’t matter and that second place is perfectly satisfactory because he reckons the quality of the opposition will be decent regardless. Now, getting back to the disgruntled Arsenal fan, his gripe is that having lost the previous Wednesday, the team’s mentality has changed, perhaps subconsciously. Suddenly, instead of a team who have won five matches on the trot, they’re now a team who lost their last match and need to get back to winning ways. Indeed, they went on to lose the league match which followed their defeat to Shakhtar.
The point is, winning is a habit.
For Daniel Martin, this became apparent for the first time this year. However, the winning habit I refer to, did not begin in Poland where he won his first Pro Tour race of the season. No, after an unspectacular spring and a steady Giro d’Italia, the win that kick started Martin’s year (and career) came on a beautiful summer’s day in Dublin city centre on the 19th of June.
That day, Martin took part in the Halford’s Tour Series criterium which was raced along the cobbled streets of Temple Bar. The criterium route was far from flat. The rise up Dame Street proved problematic for the more traditional, powerful criterium racers. Irish cycling coach Paddy Doran commended Martin at the time for his ability to spin at a much higher cadence than his rivals that day which gave him an edge when accelerating out of corners. As I sat outside a pub just opposite Bad Bob’s, myself, my brother, my cousin, (and Bono), watched Dan Martin almost lap the entire field twice. He came close to catching the stragglers initially, then suffered a mechanical problem at around the half way point in the race which caused him to be caught by a group of chasers. He then broke away again and lapped almost the entire field on his way to victory. It was a hugely impressive performance from a rider who is not supposed to be suited to this type of racing.
As he stood atop the podium just opposite the Olympia Theatre, it was Martin’s first opportunity to celebrate a victory for almost two years. Not since he won the 2008 Irish national road race championships in Cork had he won a race of any description. It was to spark off a fantastic second half to his season. Of course, winning a city centre criterium is fairly trivial compared to the victories that would follow, but it must have felt good and it proved that he could win, and win well.
To follow was a solid ride at the five day Italian stage race, the Brixia Tour, where he finished on the podium alongside Domenico Pozzovivo and Morris Possoni. But the big elusive Pro Tour level victory came the following week in Poland. Martin himself described in the October Pro Cycling magazine how reticent he was after taking a stage victory which put him in yellow:
Winning the stage was incredible but I found it difficult to celebrate – I was in the leader’s jersey with two stages to go in a Pro Tour stage race! I was nervous.
But with the help of his Garmin team mates he defended the jersey excellently over the remaining stages to become the first Irish winner of a foreign national tour since Sean Kelly won the Tour de Suisse in 1990.
The autumn continued to be kind to Martin, as winning did indeed seem to become a habit. He won the Tre Valli Varesine, adding his name to a list of greats such as Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Giuseppe Saronni who can call themselves past winners of that particular one day race. He then narrowly missed out on victory in the Giro dell’Emilia, losing out to Dutchman Robert Gesink in the final kick to the line. Martin had this to say to Irish Pro Cycling about losing out to Gesink:
I messed up the finish there. I could have won. I was probably the strongest man in the race. I didn’t realise that I was that strong until the end. I didn’t feel great early on but I kind of blew the cobwebs out later in the race. It was disappointing that I didn’t get the result but it’s given me great confidence. I’m pretty happy and in a good place at the moment.
He then finished off his season by attacking the field at the Japan Cup with 38 km to go and winning solo, almost a minute ahead of anyone else.
Unfortunately, Martin’s immense end of season form counted for little at one of his major season goals, the Tour of Lombardy, as a bout of horrific weather caused foul racing conditions which in turn caused him to fall 100 km from the finish. But as he says himself, he’s only 24 years old, he’ll still have a fair few shots at that particular race.
Martin’s form at the season’s end was such that he must have been cursing the fact that there was no more race wins to compete for. As there are far less potential victories on the calendar for climbers than there are for sprinters or rouleurs, four wins in a season for a 24 year old climber is a fantastic achievement. But it all started with a win, which will appear as but a footnote on his palmarés, on a sunny day in Dublin town.
(Footage of Martin’s attack and stage win at the Tour of Poland. He attacks about one minute in to the video. Seriously impressive.)