Dan Martin is talking at length and fondly about his victory in the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, his maiden Monument success, when the elephant in the room gets brought up: the panda.
“It’s funny because the image of my Liège experience – a beautiful moment in my career – is of me and a panda, and not me crossing the finish line. You’ll probably use it as your main picture, too, won’t you?”
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Yes, Dan, we have, see above. It’s not to disservice his achievement, but the 2013 edition of La Doyenne, and thus Martin’s win, will go down as one of the most remembered Monuments of this decade simply because of a hyped fan dressed as an endangered animal.
Yet the race was so much more than the sight of a panda running up the finishing climb in Ans. It was a race first of attrition, second of terrific teamwork by Garmin-Sharp, and third of the confirmation of a genuine star who can win one-day events as well as stage races.
The victory for Martin, age 26 at the time, came just a month after he succeeded in winning the Volta a Catalunya, his first general classification triumph. Liège a few weeks later reaffirmed his new position as one of the sport’s marked and most potent personnel.
But all people seem to remember is the closing kilometre and the sight of Martin, just before he attacked to win, staring an arms-waving-about-man dressed as a panda in the eye. But that didn’t actually happen; the photo is deceiving.
“I didn’t see it,” the Irishman reveals. “The first thing I knew about it was when people started messaging me on Twitter afterwards, saying what had happened and I was sat there saying ‘what the hell are they talking about.’
“Then I seen the image of me looking around at where it is. But I was looking behind to see where [Michele] Scarponi and [Alejandro] Valverde where. All I seen was someone running behind me. I was thinking ‘get out the way’, as I couldn’t see Valverde potentially coming from behind.
“I didn’t have a clue it was a panda. It would have broken my concentration completely had I know it was a panda. I just thought it was an idiot running up the hill.”
Memories from a momentous day. “It was an incredible day, one of those days where everything goes perfectly,” he reflects. “I didn’t make any mistakes. On these long days it takes a subliminal concentration all day to ride perfectly and be at the right place all day, not wasting any energy, not even a single ounce of energy. It was probably one of the best performances on my bike.”
His GC win in Spain had him feeling confident, but the favourites for the race were Joaquim Rodríguez – 2012’s most successful rider – and Valverde, a rider who is a master of the Liège course.
It’s put to Martin that he may have been intimated by the Spanish pair. “I had already just beaten them at Catalunya. I didn’t know I could be at the time but I was on the way to being on a par with them.”
The race followed a traditional path: a breakaway of six went up the road, but they weren’t permitted a race-long stay out front. Once they were caught by the peloton at 38km, a few riders attacked, but nothing stuck.
Then, at 16.5km from the finish, Martin’s teammate Ryder Hesjedal, the then Giro d’Italia champion, attacked after the Côte de Colonster.
For a few brief moments, the Canadian looked to have a genuine chance of staying away, of bucking the trend of the race being decided at the finish in Ans. Yet the way this race unravels appears to be pre-determined (hence in part the parcours being changed for 2019) and thus Hesjedal was reeled in by five chasers, 5.4km shy of the finish.
It was here that Martin’s chance came. “Ryder knew his only chance to win was to attack with 15km to go. Once he rolled his dice, he worked for me,” he says.
“When we caught up with him, he looked at me, didn’t say anything but he could see I was good. We had an understanding of each other’s strength.”
For four kilometres Hesjedal led the group. Martin attacked after a kilometre of Hesjedal setting the pace but was closed down. He subsequently slipped to the back of the group.
At 1.2km, Rodríguez launched his expected move. He went up the road, distancing himself. Martin panicked. “I almost lost the race. Purito attacked and I wanted Valverde to attack so I hesitated, but Rodriguez was disappearing.
“I started to think, ‘wait a minute, I don’t have the legs’. That perhaps was the intimidation. I was thinking that Valverde will close the gap for me, but that day I was stronger than him.”
Martin chased. “I was closing the gap pretty quickly. The last 50 metres before I caught him I backed off a little so that I was fresher when I got to him.
“Then it was a waiting game, waiting for the right moment. He was looking over his shoulder and that’s when I went. I was almost waiting for him to lose concentration. I had left it long enough and I think he thought I was waiting for the final sprint so I took him by surprise. I didn’t want to risk it on the sprint, so it was a case of going all in.”
The win was special for a multitude of reasons, including reinforcing Martin’s age-long affinity with one-day racing. “There is still something very special about one-day races, and I love them,” he extols.
“You take risks and leave everything out on the road. There is a lot less strategy and science involved in the planning. In fact, you can’t plan for them. It’s a lot simpler than stage racing and there’s something beautiful about that.”