Dan Martin reflects on a career of consistency, instinctive racing and a panda: 'It was the human element that I found fun'

The Israel Start-Up Nation rider rode for four teams during his 14-year presence in the pro peloton

Dan Martin
(Image credit: Getty)

Dan Martin laughs when I point out to him that the enduring image of his soon-to-be-over career will be of a man dressed in a panda suit running alongside him as he won the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“It was crazy, wasn’t it,” he tells Cycling Weekly. “It’s funny how one moment became so iconic. After I announced I was retiring, someone asked why there was no sign of a panda on the press release.

“Mind you, I definitely milked it afterwards. And I’m glad I did because one thing I learned is that you have to savour the best moments while they last. I thought I’d win another Liège, and probably could have had a hat-trick, but it was just the one in the end.”

It’s extremely unfair that as Martin prepares to bring his illustrious 14-year career to a close, it is an animal costume that still forms such a large part of his biography.

Midway through another enjoyable, revealing chat with Martin - they have always been like that, whether before a stage, on the rollers after one, or on the phone -  we reverse roles and I ask him to be the journalist, the one to describe the career of Dan Martin, born in 1986 and winner of 22 professional wins.

After 10 seconds of genuinely thinking, trying to articulate his thoughts, he responds: “I’m useless at this stuff. I’m proud, of course, it’s gone bloody quick, but I don’t like looking back, and I’m not sure I ever will do.”

If he ever does allow himself to reflect, he’ll see a palmarès that includes wins at each of the Grand Tours, Liège, Il Lombardia, a fourth-place overall at the 2020 Vuelta a España, and Volta a Catalunya title.

Dan Martin

Martin and Joaquim Rodríguez being chased by a panda at the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège that Martin won by three seconds from the Spaniard.

(Image credit: Getty)

I ask him if he feels like he has received the credit his performances deserve, admired as he should be. Battling to be appreciated has been a constant side note in his cycling story.

“It’s nice for Cycling Weekly to mention that because I remember as a 16-year-old fighting to get my name in your junior results. You’d never give me column inches!” he laughs.

“I’m not egotistical, but I did see on Twitter that only six or seven riders have ever won stages in all the Grand Tours and Liège and Il Lombardia. The only other current rider is [Philippe] Gilbert and Eddy Merckx is also there.

“To be alongside those names… well, I’ve never thought about it before, but that’s potentially why I have stayed competitive for so long because you can’t afford to rest on your laurels or think too much about what you’ve done. 

“I won races almost every year. My first Grand Tour win was in 2011 and then I completed the set at the Giro this year. That’s a long time winning big races. I feel like I’ve had a solid career, I’ve achieved more than I could ever have dreamed of.”

Honest - he chuckles that he only announced his retirement now because he wouldn't have been able to keep it a secret at the Tour of Britain -  Martin talks about how he has “never been disappointed”, and how winning was never the most important thing for him; performance was the priority.

Triumphing in the Giro this May, though, left him feeling “quite tall because it was the moment I realised, when it home, that I had had an impact on people’s lives. Not just the other riders and staff but people sending me messages on social media.

“That was gratifying and it make me happy. It’s a pleasure giving people a special feeling. For me I was just like ‘yeah, great, I’ve won’, it was bizarre, but for others it was huge. That was the moment when I thought it was maybe time to call it a day.”

Dan Martin

At the 2014 Tour of Beijing Martin used his panda connections to his benefit

(Image credit: Getty)

Now aged 35, Martin has decided to abandon the life of 200 days in hotels, strict diets and attempting to compete with a young generation who are intent on rewriting conventional wisdom and resetting the record books.

“I wanted to stop before I stopped enjoying it. I can feel the life of a cyclist is wearing on me," he confesses.

“I’ve been training as hard as ever, and I’m still loving it now, but the racing demands that you are at 100 percent commitment 24/7 and nearly all year round. 

“The sport’s more professional now, everyone has their nutritions dialled in, and the last few years it has consumed me. I realised I needed to diversify my life, including for my mental health. I can’t keep missing out on normal life with the family.”

The Irishman says that he has lived like a monk in the past two years to be able to challenge in Grand Tours, and he rode four in the space of 11 months between August 2020 and July 2021.

While part of the sport’s growth and adaptation to technological advances, he has been dejected by the peloton’s reliance of numbers. “My style of racing has been tempered by how structured and professional teams are now,” he adds.

“The Vuelta today [stage 20] was crazy, all hell broke loose, but generally the human element is being lost by coaches telling pros what to do, nutritionists telling you what to eat and when, the coaches all dialled in on the power side of things.

“No-one makes mistakes in racing anymore and it was the human element that I found fun. It’s explains a bit why I have come to this decision.”

Dan Martin

Martin won his second Monument at the 2014 Il Lombardia

(Image credit: Getty)

In the final month of his career before he devotes more attention to helping athletes invest in growth companies as part of his role with Rubix Ventures, Martin is riding the Tour of Britain, the World Road Race Championships and finishing at Il Lombardia, the sight of his memorable 2014 victory.

“It’s a beautiful race: I remember watching it as a kid and I fell in love with it," he says. "The year I won it was probably the easiest course I have ever ridden the race on though!”

He’s open to remaining involved with cycling, but before then has to make his training of the past year, and all the sacrifices that come with it, count towards something else.

“It’s an incredible situation that I’m in in that whatever I do now, good or bad, people won’t remember me for that,” he says. “Unless I win Lombardia again, of course.”

That’d be the fairy-tale ending to one of this century’s finest racers.

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