Cycling: Martin makes history with Liege triumph
Dan Martin became the first Irish cyclist in over two decades to win a classic when he sprinted clear of Spanish favourite Joaquin Rodriguez to take victory at the last of the Ardennes Classics, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, in Belgium.
Martin was perfectly positioned by his Garmin Sharp team for most of the gruelling 265km race and an attack by last year's Giro d'Italia winner and teammate Ryder Hesjedal in the last 15km meant that the former Irish champion didn't have to ride hard at the front of the chase group in the closing stages.
When Hesjedal was caught by Italian Michele Scarponi (Lampre), Colombian Carlos Betancur (Ag2r), Spanish duo Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) on the final climb, Martin had covered the move and the Canadian sacrificed his own chances for his Irish team-mate.
With a group containing world champion Philippe Gilbert and more of the pre-race favourites closing fast, Hesjedal did a terrific job to keep the chasers at bay until the six leaders hit the final climb to the finish in Liege.
As Hesjedal faded, last year's world No 1, Rodriguez, attacked with a kilometre to go and was followed by Michele Scarponi of Lampre. Martin waited patiently alongside Valverde and Betancur before jumping clear of the duo.
Martin passed Scarponi on the hill to bridge across to Rodriguez in the final 500m. Upon catching the Spaniard, Martin took a short breather before leaving him for dead with 300m to go, to solo to his first ever classic victory and Ireland's third win in the race after Sean Kelly in 1984 and 1989.
"I hesitated a bit when Rodriguez went but then I saw the others had nothing left. I knew I had to go. I thought I left it too late but I was able to catch him. I didn't want to leave it to a small group sprint. A sprint after 260km is not the same as a normal sprint. I can't believe it. I'm in shock."
The son of 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche's sister, Maria, and former British champion Neil Martin, the 26-year-old's stock has been steadily rising since he turned pro in 2008 and he became the first Irish rider to win a WorldTour stage race when he won the Tour of Poland in 2011.
Martin ended last year ranked No 8 in the world and has already taken a stage win and overall victory in the Tour of Catalonia and a very close fourth place at Fleche Wallone midweek. Originally labelled a climber, Martin has become a strong contender for the hillier classics and they don't come any tougher than 'La Doyenne'.
"I think I've always had the capacity to win one of these. It's just that I've either been working for team-mates or had bad luck. Allergies have affected me at this time of the year too, but we seem to have conquered them now. I was eighth in Lombardia in 2009, my second year pro and for sure, age and maturity is making me stronger every year and I'm improving.
"I had a few mechanical problems at the Amstel Gold race last Sunday. We tried to fix them but I ended up changing my bike. I had a few other issues as well. I was overdressed, I missed a couple of bottles and then I crashed out. Everything went perfectly on Wednesday – until the flat tyre.
"The guys really looked after me all day and I was ruing my luck when the puncture happened but Pete (Stetina) gave me his wheel straight away and I was able to stay composed.
"I got back into the group and the guys worked perfectly to get me into position at the bottom of the Mur de Huy. I got a bit held up at around 250 metres to go, so it was tough to just miss out on the podium by a couple of inches, but I said yesterday that all I needed was a bit of luck and I got it today."
Martin was quick to thank his team for their efforts throughout the week and says his victory yesterday is proof that clean riders can win big races.
"Our team has a really tough line against doping and that's one of the reasons why I joined them, because it coincided with my own beliefs.
"Like Ryder's win at the Giro last year and David Millar's stage victory in the Tour last year, this victory shows that it's possible to win clean. Everybody sees our team as underdogs but we had two riders up there at the finish, so we were definitely contenders.
"They protected me all day... It felt like one of the easiest races I've ever done. It's incredible. I'm so happy. I just cannot believe I've won."
Martin will take a short break now before a trip home to take part in the Cycle4Life charity ride in Dunboyne in aid of Temple St Children's Hospital on Saturday May 4.