When you’re 32 and going into your 12th year as a professional, your beloved sport may not hold the same excitement for you that it once did.
But despite being closer to the finish line of his cycling career rather than the beginning, Dan Martin admits he’s “never been so excited” ahead of his 2019 campaign.
And who can blame him. The Birmingham-born climber is coming off the back of a 2018 in which he won a stage at the Tour de France on his way to an eighth-place finish overall – impressive considering he was bumped down to 24th after a horrific crash which left his back “looking like a pizza” on Stage 8.
Despite finishing outside the top three places in the General Classification, he actually got to climb the podium in Paris after he won the Combativity award, given for aggressive riding.
He turned down an offer from Team Sky as well as rumoured interest from Bora-Hansgrohe, BMC Racing Team, Team Katusha-Alpecin and Trek-Segafredo to sign with UAE Team Emirates last year.
The Middle East team go into their third campaign on the UCI WorldTour amid a hum of excitement with the likes of rising Colombian sprint sensation Fernando Gaviria and climbing compatriot Sergio Henao joining a stellar cast, including Alexander Kristoff, Fabio Aru, Rui Costa, as well as Martin.
#UAETeamEmirates 🇦🇪 season debut in Australia 🇦🇺. Check our complete line-up for the @tourdownunder and after the @CadelRoadRace :@sebystrom 🇳🇴@IvOliveira96 🇵🇹@JasperPhilipsen 🇧🇪@TamauPogi 🇸🇮@PolancJan 🇸🇮@rorysutherland1 🇦🇺@DiegoUlissi 🇮🇹#TourDownUnder #CadelRoadRace pic.twitter.com/feAjD47cIA— @UAE-TeamEmirates (@TeamUAEAbuDhabi) 8 January 2019
Martin’s Stage 6 win from Brest to Mur-de-Bretagne – an inaugural triumph for UAE Team Emirates at Le Tour – was followed by their second on the final leg, the iconic Stage 21 parade which turns into a sprint along the Champs-Elysees, claimed by Norwegian Kristoff.
And after a decent debut with his new team, Martin is predicting even better things to come for a squad impressively replenished in the off-season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to start a season,” said Martin, who represented Ireland at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
“It’s a long, long season. And obviously the adaption to the new team took a lot out of me too. This year though I think you’ll see a very different team.
“All the mistakes we made at the start of the year that led to us not having the results we wanted, we’re learning and we’re making a huge step forward. I think the UAE is at the forefront of science and technology in the world and right now we’re bringing the team to that level.
“We’re going into this year with a lot stronger team as well as the scientific side behind the scenes, which will make a huge difference. So we’re excited.”
Even though he may wonder what might have been had he not crashed on Stage 8, Martin insists he looks forward to what can be achieved in 2019 rather than what could have been achieved last year.
“It (finishing eighth overall) doesn’t make me want to do better, it just gives me more belief we can podium and maybe even win the Tour,” added the man who began his professional career with Slipstream-Chipotle in 2008.
“I think a lot of teams have become complacent and maybe this team was at the start of the year. But now, this year, we’re going to be one of the best teams in the world. Hopefully it’s sure to lead to improved results.”
A year for a professional cyclist is a long and grueling one. Riders typically have less than a month off as an off-season. When the WorldTour begins for Martin, UAE Team Emirates and the rest of cycling’s top tier on Tuesday with the Tour Down Under in Australia, it concludes with the Tour of Guangxi on October 20.
Even Martin’s off-season couldn’t have been that relaxing. He and wife Jess – a long-distance runner who competed at the 2016 Summer Olympics for Britain – welcomed twin daughters Daisy and Ella into the world on September 19 – “so it won’t be much of a holiday”, Martin admitted to Sport360 while in the UAE towards the tail end of 2018 at a winter training camp, which involved visiting various UAE schools.
“It’s a very exciting period in our lives and it will inspire me even more this year,” he added.
Martin himself was born five weeks prematurely and suffered from asthma as a child, so some would say he was destined for a life at the pinnacle of a sport that is one of the most demanding on the body.
It seems even more inevitable given he was also born into a family of thoroughbreds among the sport. His father Neil is a former pro who was a member of the Great Britain team at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.
Meanwhile, his uncle, Stephen Roche, was crowned Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champion in 1987 and is one of only two cyclists, alongside the legendary Eddy Merckx, to win cycling’s Triple Crown – Le Tour, Giro and the World Road Race Championships – in the same year.
Roche’s son Nicholas – Martin’s cousin – is also a pro, acting as a domestique for Tom Dumoulin at Team Sunweb in 2019.
But even though he was around the sport and one of its giants from an early age, Martin insists he simply caught the bug, rather than any expectation to tow the family line.
“I was exposed to it from an early age. It was on television all over the house and watching my dad go out to race every day, but there was also no pressure to take it up. It was only enjoyment,” insists Martin.
“A lot of people put professional cyclists on a pedestal, but to me it was just normal to ride in or even win the Tour de France. Being a professional cyclist was never something that was unachievable.
“I hope that’s something these kids draw from, we’re just normal guys. We’re not anything special. OK, we’re good at riding bikes but it comes from training, hard work and riding from an early age.
My 3 girls. Cannot explain how I feel right now. I would like to introduce you to Daisy and Ella Martin, born at 9:31 and 9:32 this morning. All are doing very well. pic.twitter.com/jzQzvxgtmq— Dan Martin (@DanMartin86) 19 September 2018
“It does make it a lot easier when you grow up around it and surrounded by people who understand cycling. But it’s a lot easier if you enjoy it and create that passion from an early age. That obviously translates into success later down the line.”
As for emulating the achievements of uncle Steve and finishing his career with a yellow jersey to his name, Martin admits it would be nice, but he’s also proud of what he’s already achieved.
“I don’t have much contact with him to be honest. But he’s incredibly proud,” Martin said of his famous uncle.
“What we did in the Tour this year, I’m incredibly proud of. Obviously we could have done things smarter, but winning a stage was fantastic.
“It was a relief too because we didn’t have a great start to the year but the Tour is where it’s at and the Tour is maybe what will inspire some of these kids to take up cycling.”
The UCI WorldTour 2019 is less than one-week away and, for UAE Team Emirates, it not only marks their third season as a professional cycling squad on the sport’s biggest stage, but one that promises to be their most successful yet.
Their 2018 campaign brought the team a series of high-profile wins across the year, with impressive podiums in one day classics, stage races and Grand Tours – most notably the Tour de France, where both Dan Martin and Alexander Kristoff earned first-place finishes.
This year the team has bolstered the squad with even more firepower, bringing in both world-class riders with proven pedigree on the WorldTour and young talent with the ability to grow into stars of the future.
The new roster of riders will give the team an edge for 2019, elevating them to the next level with the goal of being one of the most competitive teams on the tour.
The new signings have been made possible through the continued support of the team’s existing sponsors, which include local partners Emirates and First Abu Dhabi Bank as well as Emirati real estate development company Emaar, who now feature prominently on the front and back of the team’s jersey.
The most notable of the new riders signed during the winter off-season was rising Colombian sprinting talent Fernando Gaviria.
The 24-year-old was a two-stage Tour de France winner in 2018 with Quick-Step and is heralded as one of cycling’s most promising talents. Despite his tender years, Gaviria’s winning mentality has seen the powerhouse pick up stage wins at the Giro d’Italia (2017), Amgen Tour of California (2018), Tour of Poland (2016), Tirreno-Adriatico (2016 & 2017) and Tour of Britain (2015 & 2017).
Ahead of the new season, Gaviria said: “I’m happy that I’m going to start the new season wearing the jersey of UAE Team Emirates. In addition to the excitement of racing for a new team, I’m really keen to better understand the culture and traditions of the United Arab Emirates and to appreciate how cycling is really growing in the region.
“I admire the team’s project in the UAE, so it’s important that the riders can help inspire young kids to cycle and to promote a healthy lifestyle. I think it’s great that cycling is becoming aspirational and I really want to contribute by achieving great results for the team.”
Joining Gaviria is countryman and Colombian national champion, Sergio Henao. The climber joins UAE Team Emirates from Team Sky, where he secured a number of important wins, most recently the 2017 edition of Paris-Nice which saw him take home the General Classification title.
Another Colombian to join the ranks is Juan Sebastian Molano. The 24-year-old had an impressive 2018 season in cycling’s second division (Pro Continental), picking up the General Classification title at the Tour of China and taking first place in the Pan American Championships Road Race.
He will be looking to make a big impact after stepping up to the UCI WorldTour level.
The quartet of Colombian riders is completed by Cristian Munoz. At just 22, he is the youngest to join for the 2019 season, also graduating from a Columbian Pro Continental cycling team.
Across the Atlantic, UAE Team Emirates secured the signatures of Portuguese twin brothers, Ivo and Rui Oliveira. The former is the reigning Portuguese U-23 Individual Time Trial (ITT) champion, while Rui is the reigning Portuguese U-23 national road race champion.
Another young name to join the Emirati line-up is Belgian Jasper Philipsen. The 20-year-old had an unbelievable 2018 season, picking up a number of domestic wins and becoming one of the most sought after prospects in professional cycling.
Capping off the new names is Swiss rider, Tom Bohli. Having spent the last four years with BMC Racing Team, Bohli joins with a wealth of WorldTour experience.
Team Manager Joxean Matxin said: “Starting a new season is always exciting, because everything you focused on during the winter break is transferred to the road and you can finally see if all your efforts are rewarded by results.
“In 2019 we’ll face even bigger challenges, however, we have strengthened our roster and improved the quality of our structure and processes so we are ready for it.”
Team CEO Mauro Gianetti added: “This will be our third year as UAE Team Emirates and we have never been more excited or more confident of our potential.
“We have signed world class riders – along with some of the best up and coming talent – and they have all bonded extremely well with our existing roster during the winter training camps.
“Off the road we have also forged new relationships with sponsors from the UAE, who will be invaluable in helping the team to build its profile and grow the sport of cycling across the country. We can’t wait to get this season started and show ours fans what we’re capable of.”
The 2019 WorldTour season gets under way with the Tour Down Under in Australia from Sunday.
UAE Team Emirates line-up for Tour Down Under:
Sven Erik Bystrom (Norway), Rory Sutherland (Australia), Ivo Oliveira (Portugal), Jasper Philipsen (Belgium), Tadej Pogacar, Jan Polanc (both Slovenia), Diego Ulissi (Italy)
Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas will both target the Tour de France for Team Sky in 2019, with young Colombian Egan Bernal set to lead the team at the Giro d’Italia.
Froome will not defend his Giro title as he seeks a record-equalling fifth Tour crown, but Thomas also plans to be in France having won the race for the first time in July.
Froome said: “I’m getting to the point in my career now where I’m starting to think about what kind of legacy I want to leave behind and if I am able to win the Tour de France for a fifth time and join that very elite group of bike riders – only four other people have ever done that – it would just be incredible.”
Thomas added: “Maybe if I hadn’t have won the Tour in 2018 I might have looked at a Giro/Vuelta programme but, having won the Tour, I’ll have the number one on my back and it would be sad not to go back and not to go back at 100 per cent as well.”