Track Cycling World Championships: GB’s Katie Archibald secures points race silver in dramatic fashion on the final lap
Watch as Great Britain's Katie Archibald secures silver in a dramatic fashion, during the final…
For Dan Martin, the moment arrived a little under 38 kilometres from Bergamo, when the late afternoon sun was dripping down like honey and the front group at Il Lombardia was gradually but inevitably falling apart.
As the gradient stiffened on the Passo di Gandia and the intensity ratcheted up another notch, one rider after another reached his breaking point and swung off. Martin had battled gamely on the earlier climbs, in the service of his friend and teammate Michael Woods as much as in pursuit of a fairytale coda to his career.
Now, as Tadej Pogačar and others began to turn the screw at the front, Martin realised that he could go no further. A gap opened up before his front wheel. One metre became five. Five became ten. And so on. The leaders were soon out of sight, and the race, which he won in 2014 and where he placed second to a most surprising Oliver Zaugg in 2011, was suddenly out of reach.
Rather than sadness, Martin felt something like relief. His time had come, just like he thought it had. The decision to retire was the correct one. He was already sure of it, but this felt like the final confirmation.
“I’m not going to lie, I was emotional at the start and I had a few tears in my eyes at the sign-on. But then in the race, I just turned to business mode,” Martin told Cycling News an hour or so after the finish, as dusk was beginning to fall gently over Bergamo.
“I think it was good that the race was so hard and that I didn’t have the best day, because I spent the whole day suffering and it made me realise I don’t want to do it anymore. I expected to be more emotional at the finish, but it was more relief and happiness that I don’t have to put myself through that anymore. It just confirms that I’ve made the right decision.
“I felt kind of empty all day – empty physically, but empty mentally, too. I think I’ve given everything, in the last two years especially, but throughout my career. It’s time to move on and, yeah, I feel really content with my decision.”
At the start in Como on Saturday morning, Martin joked that he hadn’t been thinking too much about the finality of this edition of Il Lombardia until his Israel Start-Up Nation squad kept reminding him of the fact in the days beforehand. At the finish in Bergamo, staff members wore t-shirts bearing the legend ‘Grazie Dan,’ but the last act of his racing life, in keeping with the way he carried himself throughout his career, was modest.
On rolling home in 38th place, 5:36 down on Pogačar, Martin made his way discreetly to his team bus, where he showered and then sat sharing a drink with his teammates, as though he had simply clocked off at the end of a shift rather than brought the curtain down on an illustrious career.
Martin announced his decision to retire on the eve of the Tour of Britain last month, but the idea had been percolating for several months beforehand. Perhaps the first public hint came when the Tour de France visited his adopted home of Andorra in July, when Martin’s emotion at racing in front of his family was palpable in the mixed zone beyond the finish line.
“I had a feeling then that it might be my last Tour, because I had already started playing with the idea of not doing a Grand Tour next year if I was going to continue, just because they’re just so brutally hard,” he said. “But I’m not sure when I decided. It was a decision that came to me over a period of time, and it definitely wasn’t an overnight thing.”
From a purely athletic standpoint, Martin was nowhere close to the end of his tether. Just this May, after all, he completed a set of Grand Tour stage wins and top 10 overall finishes at the Giro d’Italia, where he soloed to victory on the viciously steep ascent of Sega di Ala. For the 35-year-old father of a young family, however, the idea of maintaining such an ascetic lifestyle indefinitely was rather less appealing and perhaps simply unsustainable.
“Obviously, physically I could continue for a number of years but everybody underestimates the mental toll this sport takes on you and the sacrifice you have to make at home, and the commitment,” Martin said. “Mentally, I’m just tired. To maintain this level you have to basically never switch off and that’s tiring. That’s what I realised. I didn’t feel capable mentally of maintaining the level of performance I had over the last years so that’s why I decided to stop.”
When Martin turned professional in 2008, for instance, altitude training was the preserve of an elite cadre of riders. 13 years on, it is more or less de rigueur for the entire peloton. When he first raced Il Lombardia in his maiden season, the race was whittled down to its bare bones long before the finish in Como with the bulk of the gruppo long since shorn of motivation at the end of a long season.
On Saturday, the front group was still 50 strong at the base of the Passo di Gandia before Pogačar launched his winning move. “In another year it would have been 20 riders left at that point, it just shows how professional the sport has become,” Martin said.
The Irishman leaves professional cycling with one of the most complete palmarès of his generation. As well as Monument victories at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013 and Il Lombardia a year later, he placed 6th overall at the 2017 Tour de France and finished just shy of the podium at last year’s Vuelta a España.
Martin entered the professional peloton in 2008, at a time when cycling was still reckoning with the fall-out from the Operacion Puerto and Michael Rasmussen scandals. Although the introduction of the biological passport provided guarded grounds for optimism, Lance Armstrong’s return to the sport at the end of Martin’s maiden season hardly suggested the culture had altogether changed. Scaling such heights seemed improbable back then.
“When I turned pro, I never would have imagined that I would be retiring with a palmarès like this. Obviously, it’s been a special ride and I have to say thank you to all the people who’ve joined me on that ride over the years,” Martin said.
“The sport was a very different environment when I turned pro, but I just feel fortunate to have landed in cycling when I did and into that team [Slipstream], especially. To achieve what I have done, and keeping my morals, it means I’m exiting the sport with my head held high. That’s a really nice feeling.”