Ireland’s Dan Martin is one of just two Irish riders who will roll out of the German city of Dusseldorf this afternoon for the 104th edition of the Tour de France.
Alongside his first cousin Nicolas Roche, the 31-year old is going into the race quietly confident of bettering the ninth place he finished last year.
Now in his second season with Quick-Step Floors, Martin does not have the luxury of a full squad of riders around him to protect his own interests as the Belgian team have opted to send more of an all-round line-up.
That means they will chase stage wins through sprinter Marcel Kittel on the flatter stages while Philippe Gilbert should also challenge on the more mountainous days.
While Roche’s BMC Racing team will go with the sole intention of trying to help their team leader Richie Porte win, and defending champion Chris Froome will have an army of Team Sky riders around him, it’s not the same for former stage winner Martin.
“I don’t think about it. I tag onto the back of these guys (BMC and Sky) on flat stages and so it’s as good as having a GC team on flat stages,” he said.
“There are enough teams who are going to ride very hard to the bottom of the mountains. I just learned to race like that. For me, it’s more important to stay safe on the flat stages at the start of the Tour, or at any time in the Tour.
“With this group of guys, for stages that are my weak point, I have an incredible back-up; As good as or better than any other GC rider.
“I can sit behind Marcel, that’s nice and a better draft than anyone. The route this year doesn’t play into the hands of the stronger teams,” he continued.
“Obviously there’s still going to be time where it’s important to have a team, but I’ll find some draft somewhere.”
On his overall chances, Martin can be confident because of the blistering year he’s had so far; sixth in the Volta ao Algarve, third in Paris-Nice, sixth in the Volta a Catalunya, second in La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and of course, third this month in the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“I was getting better and better every day of the Dauphine and it gave me a big confidence-booster; not that I needed it. My worst result this year is sixth in any race I’ve done.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on the start line here at the Tour that’s got that record. If I can get to Paris with that record intact it would be a great Tour.”
It doesn’t bother him that he’s not seen as a potential winner like Froome, Porte, Nairo Quintana or Romain Bardet, but after that podium in the Dauphiné – the same as last year, he knows he can go very close if the cards fall his way.
“I beat these guys before. I think everyone in the race is going to try to win the Tour de France, so why not go in and try and see what happens?
“Everyone is human here and everyone can have a bad day, whoever has the least bad bad day can win the Tour.
“I learned a lot last year because I raced like an idiot. I made mistakes. It was the first year riding the GC at the Tour de France and the first time climbing in the mountains at the front in the Tour. I learned how it is different than the Vuelta a España and how you need to race it differently.”
Also in Martin’s team are New Zealand national TT champion Jack Bauer, Fabio Sabatini, and Czech road race champion Zdenek Stybar who won a stage of the Tour into Lyon two years ago.
Completing the lead-out will be Matteo Trentin and Julien Vermote.
For Roche, it will be very much about keeping Porte out of danger on the flat stages and chaperoning him in the high mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees in weeks two and three.
“I am totally okay with that,” he said, realising he will get few chances of his own.
“That was my main goal, I came here to BMC Racing team to help Richie in the Tour it’s not a surprise that I’ve been given that job and I can’t wait to give 100%.”
The Tasmanian was left gutted after he lost the Dauphiné on the final stage last month and he grinned at last night’s press conference when it was suggested he was the man to beat this month.
“Sky saying I’m the favourite is just one of the games that they like to play,” said the 32-year-old, who spent four seasons at Team Sky between 2012 and 2015.
“Behind closed doors they think Chris is the guy who will win. He’s the defending champion and he’s the one with the big target on his back.”
The rail-thin Froome was surrounded by his eight teammates on the stage for his own pre-race grilling where it was suggested his appetite for overall victory might be his Achilles heel after three wins to his name in the last four years.
“The hunger hasn’t got any less for me,” he replied calmly. “I’m as motivated as ever. I’ve got so much more to race for.
“It’s potentially a fourth Tour de France title. It’s a massive challenge, the level of my rivals is higher and on a difficult course as well. I’m here with the same motivation as before, if not more.”
Where the race will be won and lost
Stage 9, Nantua – Chambéry, 181.5km; Sunday July 9th
Starting at altitude in Nantua, the peloton faces a categorised climb up the Cote des Neyrolles, with the route also taking in the Col de la Binche and the Grand Colombier in the middle kilometres and the daunting Mont du Chat immediately before the descent into Chambéry.
Stage 12, Pau-Peyragudes, 214 kilometres; Friday July 13th
The race enters the Pyrénées from its traditional base, Pau, and as in 2016 the stage f will take in five categorised climbs, including the Col de Peyresourde immediately before the final climb to Peyregudes. The descent of the Peyresourde was the location of Chris Froome’s stage-winning attack in 2016, where he put 13 seconds into his rivals on stage eight.
Stage 18, Briancon-Col de Izoard, 195k, Thursday July 20th
A little bit of history for the 104th edition as the race finishes for the first time on the Col d’Izoard. The mountain has featured 34 times since 1922, but never has as stage finished on the climb. Interestingly, the Tour’s women’s race, La Course, will be contested on the Col d’Izoard this year – the first time in its four year history it has not taken place on the cobbles of the Champs-Élysées.
The race starts today in Dusseldorf for a pan-flat 14-kilometre individual time-trial where the first yellow jersey wearer will be known.
From there the route heads to northern Europe for two stages in Belgium and one in Luxembourg.
After that it’s back into France for the first real General Classification test on stage five with the summit finish at Le Planche de Belles Filles.
It will then visit the Alps twice before a transfer to the Pyrénées ahead of the second week. The race then heads back across the Massif Central into the Alps for a second time before the stage 20 time-trial (22.5 kilometres) in Marseille should decide the overall winner.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved