Cycling: Upholding his family's values
Cycling and the Tour de France have always been part of Dan Martin's destiny
Karma comes after everyone eventually. You can't get away with screwing people over your whole life, I don't care who you are. What goes around comes around. That's how it works. Sooner or later the universe will serve you the revenge that you deserve. – Jessica Brody, 'The Karma Club'
Dan Martin is sitting in a hotel room near his home in Girona, Spain with his father, Neil, and his mother, Maria. Two hours of the interview have passed, and we have ticked most of the boxes.
But not the karma. We have not addressed the twist in his tale.
The question is directed to his father. "What if I was to suggest that Dan is your revenge on this world?"
Neil Martin laughs and shakes his head. It's a laugh that suggests: 'I know exactly where you're going with this.' It's a laugh that suggests: 'And there's a chance you may be right.' It's a laugh that suggests: 'But you'll be waiting a long time if you expect me to answer that.' So you smile and let it slide. Because anyone who has ever known this 53-year-old mild-mannered Englishman will tell you that he has never done revenge.
But if he did . . .
His father's life
In the beginning, there was an electrical engineer from Birmingham, whose only working joy was the eight miles he cycled to the local GEC plant each morning, and the road he travelled home. Vic Martin was passionate about cycling and competed at grass track meetings all over England at weekends, supported by his wife, Joy, and their sons, Paul and Neil.
Paul wasn't fussed about racing but little Neil dreamt of little else and plastered his bedroom wall with posters of the great Belgian, Roger De Vlaeminck. "I started racing at 13 and absolutely lived for it," he says. "I wanted to be a pro. I wanted to be like de Vlaeminck – covered in shit riding Paris-Roubaix."
He wasn't built for racing on cobblestones; small, handsome and impeccably neat, his was the perfect frame for climbing and he achieved his first notable at the ESCA (English Schools Cycling Association) International in Yorkshire in 1976 where the runner-up was another sweet 16-year-old called Stephen Roche. They were two kids shooting for the stars but it didn't stop them being friends and Roche was soon making trips to the Martin home in Birmingham.
Three years later, in February 1979, Martin was invited to join ACBB – the most famous amateur racing club in France and the nursery of the Peugeot professional team. The other signings were Phil Anderson, a highly-rated Australian, and Robert Millar, an enigmatic Scot, but Martin was first to strike with a brilliant win in the Grand Prix Des Issambres on the Cote D'Azur.
"I was still 18 and wasn't supposed to be in the race," he says. "They told me to take it easy, that this was my year to learn. They said, 'Next year you can come back and turn it on and go pro for Peugeot in '81'. I thought, 'Wow, this is it!' Then, (at the end of the year) they asked me if I knew anyone else who might want to come over and I said, 'Yeah, I know this Irish guy.'"
One of his last races that season was the 1979 Tour of Ireland. He was tired and didn't perform but returned home to Birmingham with a spring in his step. "It was the start of my relationship with Maria," he explains. "There used to be a 'do' after the race in the Gresham (hotel) and she invited me back for her 21st that December."
A month later, he was training hard and getting ready to return to France but still hadn't heard from ACBB. "There was no email or anything at that time so I wrote a few letters but it was almost February and I'd heard nothing. I phoned every day for three days and eventually got hold of (Claude) Escalon (the manager). He said: 'We've no place for you. We've taken the Irish guy.' And that was it. I was out and Stephen was in."
Nineteen eighty was Olympic year: he decided to race at home to secure a place at the Games. In June, a month after a great performance (8th) in the Tour of Britain, he started his first Rás Tailteann and won the second stage to Strabane. "I told them (the race organisers) my grandad was Irish and rode for Dublin South," he grins.
"I was the only English rider in the race, and probably one of the first ever to ride it, and I'm standing on the podium in this border town, looking at all this barbed-wire and listening to (the announcer screaming): 'THIS IS THE ONLY ENGLISHMAN IN THE RACE'. We stayed in Derry that night and there was a bombing and a murder. I was shit-scared."
A month later, Maria travelled to Moscow for the Olympic Road race. Her brother finished 45th; her boyfriend was 49th but it was the last time the two would compete on level terms. Roche was bound for Paris and a glittering season at Peugeot: Martin was bound for Eindhoven and a disastrous year in the trenches.
"I got to Holland in '81 and was ill at the start of the season. I was working in a glass factory part-time and trying to race and it just fell apart. Mum and dad came over to visit for a weekend and mum was horrified, 'Look at the state of you' and they dragged me home. Then I was in contact with a team in Luxembourg and they offered me a place to stay. It was damp as hell and horrible – basically a cave with a door – but we went there in August of '81 and just fell in love with the place."
The 'we' was Maria. They married the following January and spent two years in Luxembourg, chasing Neil's dream until December of '84. He had won 12 races that year but it wasn't enough to secure a professional contract. "I contacted 27 (professional) teams by letter or verbal and had answers from two of them and they both said no. The closest I got was Sem-France-Loire with Seán (Kelly) but they were taking on a Dutch co-sponsor, Skil, the following year and took a Dutch guy instead."
"That must have been pretty dispiriting," I suggest.
He pauses to reflect and sighs: "It just . . . we have a mantra in this family that everything is meant for a reason and I look back now and think there probably was a reason in the light of what has come about. The doping thing did occur in those years, and I was very aware of it, and maybe they had seen that I wasn't prepared to do what perhaps you needed to do. But no regrets. We upped shop and went back for the UK and I turned pro with Bilton-Condor (a small British team) in 1985."
There was one regret; whenever people asked 'Have you done the Tour de France?' it always hurt him to say no. I ask about his brother-in-law and 1987.
"Where were you when Stephen won the Tour?"
"I won the Saltburn Classic that day," he smiles.
"You didn't watch it?"
"Where were you, Maria?"
"I was with Neil. We had our agenda, we lived in England."
"You didn't come home for the parade in Dublin?"
"No. A lot of it was the cost factor but at the end of the day, Stephen is only my brother, and I don't ever see him as anything other than that."
"We never really had much to do with him," Neil says. "I never really got to know him."
"But he's the reason you two met?" I suggest.
"Yeah, but even now we are not close," Neil says. "I don't get on with him, basically. There's no bitterness, none whatsoever, but from a family point of view he possibly could have helped my goal, my aim (to turn pro), a little bit more than he did, and that's retrospective as well with what happened to Lawrence. (In 1989, Roche secured a place for his brother, Lawrence with the Italian team, Carrera.) But it's all water under the bridge."
"Does it irritate you," I ask, "that Dan is often referred to as 'Stephen Roche's nephew?'''
"It's not an irritation because it's a reality," he replies.
Dan has been listening quietly in the background. "It's funny," he says, "but I did some radio interviews [recently in Dublin] and it was 'So, I suppose Stephen gave you lots of advice growing up?' But not one word, not once, never."
"He did have a massive, massive influence on Dan's career," Neil says, "because I wouldn't have met Maria without knowing him so . . ."
Dan laughs: "Exactly I wouldn't exist."
"That's a good way of spinning it," Maria smiles.
His mother's blood
Jonathan Vaughters has always thought outside the box when it comes to the business of recruiting for his teams. In the spring of 2007, two Irishmen entered his radar – Nicolas Roche and Daniel Martin. The bloodline was fascinating: Roche (23) was the son of a former world champion and Tour de France winner: Martin (21) was his cousin. For Vaughters, it was an absolute no-brainer – Daniel Martin was destined for greatness. Why? It was in his blood.
This is how he explains it: "Mitochondria, which is the energy factory for the body, is the single biggest genetic factor for determining great endurance athletes. More than heart size, lung size, haematocrit, whatever . . . mitochondrial DNA is only passed via the female.
"If you're a male, you have your mother's mitochondrial DNA, but it ends with you. Your son will not have it. So, Dan Martin has the same mitochondrial DNA as Stephen Roche, via (his mother) Stephen's sister."
He was born five weeks premature in August 1986. "He wasn't particularly healthy in the early years," Maria says.
"He had a persistent wheezy cough and would go grey from these attacks and Neil would take him to the hospital and they would put him on a nebuliser. But his peak-flow (rate) was a lot higher than it should have been for someone with asthma."
A second son, Tom, was born three years later. They bought a home north of Birmingham in the market town Tamworth, and as Neil watched his sons grow taller, he was living a replay of his own boyhood . . . they were kids covered in shit and dreaming of Paris-Roubaix.
Maria: "They dug a trench in the garden and put cobble-blocks down and used to do laps of the garden."
Dan: "I remember doing laps around the block and wondering how many I could do in an hour and feeling very proud that I had a suntan line on my sock line."
Neil: "We had to take it in turns to watch him."
Maria: "His granddad used to come up with a stopwatch and would have to go out and hand him up bottles and things."
Neil: "It was murder. We used to have to swap around so we could sneak in for a cup of tea. I'd think: 'When is he going to stop?'"
And then, at a time when they least expected it, he did.
The month was December, 1998. He was 12 years old and had just been gifted his first proper racing bike. "We got him this bike for Christmas – a bogus 'Pinarello' with clipless pedals that we'd had sprayed up," Neil explains. "He clips into the pedals, wobbles to the gate and falls off. It was Boxing Day, freezing. I looked him in the eye and said, 'You don't really want to do this, do you?' He said 'No'. And so we turned around and put the bike away."
Seven months later, in July 1999, the bike was still gathering dust when they left for a camping holiday to the Pyrenees. It was Dan's first time to watch the Tour de France but the miracle of Lance Armstrong did little to inspire him and the bike stayed in the shed for another 12 months.
"There was never a turning point," he replies, when pressed to explain it. "I always believed I would be a professional cyclist but I just didn't want to do it for those 18 months. We were going to the Alps in 2000 and dad said 'Right, do you want to bring your bike? Well you had better start riding it'."
He had been riding less than a week, when he climbed Alpe d'Huez in 68 minutes – not quite Marco Pantani, but not bad for a 14-year-old. "We had this fantastic photograph taken at the top," Neil recalls. "I'm out of the saddle, grinning at the camera and he's in the seat and you look in his eyes and can tell it's where he wants to be. To me it was the start."
Four years later, he was the British Junior champion. Six months after that, on January 10 2005, he took a flight to Marseille chasing the same dream his father had chased in 1979. "The best and worst day of my life was dropping him off in Gatwick airport," Neil says. "Why?" I ask. "Because you were letting him go?"
"How did you feel, Maria?"
"It was upsetting," she says, "but it was the best thing for what he wanted to do. We'd been there, and knew it was the only choice if he wanted to be a proper professional."
"What about the doping?" I ask. "A lot of kids had followed that same path and died. Was that not a factor?"
Neil: "Not at all."
Maria: "Never for one minute."
Neil: "No, honestly."
"I don't mean that he would have to dope, but he was going to be confronted by it?"
Maria: "There is no such thing as 'you have to'."
"No, but you are confronted by it?"
Neil: "Yes you are."
Dan: "I think it's a moral-fibre thing . . . I mean, we were talking about this the other day but in every report now it says, 'They are not doping because the testing is so good'. But the cultural aspect is very much overlooked. I don't dope for the same reason that I don't walk out of a shop with stuff without paying. I've never stolen anything in my life. I've never cheated in an exam. Why would I take drugs?"
Neil: "The improvements in anti-doping has made it so he can win now, the playing field is levelling out, but it's not the reason why he doesn't dope, it's who he is."
Maria: "It's who we are."
Dan: "I think it's also about the need to win. I don't need to win races, I enjoy it, but what's most important to me is to push myself to the limit and just do my best and if that's first or 100th or not finishing, well, that's how it is."
His best has been pretty decent so far. Five seasons have passed since his debut at Garmin-Sharp and he travels to Corsica on Wednesday for his second Tour de France as the world-ranked number 6 and the winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. "I think last year was important as a learning experience," he says, "and the biggest thing (I learnt) was the stress involved. The people on the side of the road get so close, and there are so many of them, that you have to really concentrate.
"In Liege this year, I spoke to Nicolas for 20 minutes but I don't think I spoke to him for 20 minutes in the whole Tour last year. You have to be 100 per cent concentrated for three weeks and that's the difference. There isn't one minute when you can relax and psychologically that takes a huge toll. But it also gave me a lot of belief, because I finished it so strongly."
"What are your ambitions this year?" I ask. "I think there's still this big unknown as to what I can do. I can say, 'Yeah, I'd like to finish on the podium' but I don't know if that's possible, and I don't want to set unrealistic targets. I think I can do well, but whether that's a stage win or a top ten or top five (overall) I don't know."
The interview is drawing to a close. I remind Neil of a message he tweeted on the first stage last year: 1999, Val Louran-d'Arzet, a 12-year-old boy sees the TdF in the mountains for the first time. Today he starts his first TdF #dreamscancometrue
And another he tweeted from Paris. I'm hard as nails, tough as old boots, rock hard etc . . . but did I have a bit of a weep when Dan swept onto the Champs Elysees! #ofcourse
"Yeah, it was emotional," he says. "I don't look back, I don't have regrets but I do regret that dad [Vic died from cancer in 2005] didn't get to see Dan doing what he is doing."
"Didn't physically get to see him," his wife corrects.
"Yeah, didn't physically get to see him," he concurs.
And he smiles, because Maria is always right.
READ HIM IN PRINT, WATCH HIM ONLINE
He says it like no one else; he writes it like no one else: Paul Kimmage is back and he's on tour. Watch him on Independent.ie and read him in the Sunday Independent.
Starting on Wednesday, see Paul's daily video diary at www.independent.ie/kimmage as he follows every move of the Tour de France, from Corsica to Paris. And finish off your weekend with his unmissable column throughout the Tour, only in the Sunday Independent.