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'I'm doing it clean. I hope that inspires kids to believe it's possible'

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2 May 2013; Ireland’s Dan Martin, Garmin-Sharp, following his victory in the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege in Belgium. Croke Park Hotel, Jones Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

2 May 2013; Ireland’s Dan Martin, Garmin-Sharp, following his victory in the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege in Belgium. Croke Park Hotel, Jones Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

2 May 2013; Ireland’s Dan Martin, Garmin-Sharp, following his victory in the 2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege in Belgium. Croke Park Hotel, Jones Road, Dublin. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Dan Martin has been on his bike for at least two hours already. Dressed in his trademark Garmin Sharp team kit, he is in the middle of a large group riding towards Dunboyne, Co Meath, when an elderly gent on a mountain bike draws alongside.

"Jaysus Dan, when I seen you catching yer man Rodriguez and then waiting, I thought you weren't going to do it," says 69-year-old Ken Guildea from Balbriggan, Co Dublin, recalling Martin's recent victory at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic. "But fair play to ya, you left him for dead."

Martin laughs and the pair have a brief chat until the rider ranked No 3 in the world jokingly challenges Guildea to a race to the next lamp post before drifting back to the family behind and having another chat.

Home this week to lead Saturday's Cycle4Life charity ride in aid of Temple Street Children's Hospital, the recent Tour of Catalonia and classic winner can't quite believe the attention he has received on the various spins he has taken part in throughout the day.

"Just seeing how much the success I've enjoyed means to people is humbling," he says, after spending hours signing autographs and smiling for photos with fans of all ages.

"To have that level of support and to hear all these stories of people shouting at the TV and jumping up and down when I'm racing... it's humbling to think that you can have that effect on people and make so many people so happy, but today was all about the hospital and raising money for them.

Encourage

"I got the chance to visit Temple Street last year and it really touched me. I've become almost like the patron of the charity now and it's incredible to be able to help a good cause like that. I'm not going to say I do a lot for it. You know, I try to publicise it and if my name can encourage a few more people to sign up, then that's fantastic because it really is a great cause and every little bit helps."

Martin himself was born six weeks premature and spent that time in an incubator in his birthplace of Birmingham. "I made it through and it's nice to be able to use my story as an inspiration to parents and kids who are in the same kind of situation as I was then, that you can go on and lead a healthy life. For us to be able to help those kids survive, I mean I win races for fun but they need to win their race to live."

You could say Dan Martin was born to race a bike. His father, Neil Martin, was British amateur road race champion and an Olympian before going on to become one of the top professionals in the UK in the heyday of the televised Kellogg's city centre criteriums. His Dublin-born mother, Maria Roche, sister of 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen, simply added to the gene pool from which young Daniel would draw in later life.

Dan was exposed to his first bike race when he was just 10 days old; he became British junior road race champion in 2004, winning the Gorey Three Day in Wexford the same year. He declared for Ireland a year later.

"I've always felt Irish," he insists. "I only recently found out that I actually lived in Ireland for six months in 1987, but we used to spend our summer holidays and Christmas holidays in Dundrum every year.

"In England, I remember as a kid playing soccer at school during the '94 World Cup and, it being a Catholic school – half the kids in the class had Irish blood in them – we all pretended to be the Republic of Ireland players in the schoolyard, which was great because England hadn't qualified that year.

"I can blame the horrible accent on living in Birmingham but it's days like today that make me proud to be Irish. Riding with the kids this morning was the highlight for me. I really love being here. I try to make it back a few times a year to see all the family. If you get a good week's weather, it's one of the best places in the world to ride a bike."

Upon moving to France as an U-23 rider, his climbing ability soon made him a target for most of the big professional teams. However, he raised eyebrows when he first decided to stay amateur for another year to 'learn how to win' before turning pro the following year for the little-known American outfit Team Slipstream, due mainly to their staunchly anti-doping stance and focus on doing the best you could rather than winning at all costs.

In his first year as a professional in 2008 he won the mountainous three-day Route du Sud in France against far more experienced riders and followed it up by riding away from the rest of the field to take both the U-23 and elite national road race championships in Cork soon after. Since then, Martin and his team – now known as Garmin-Sharp – have grown together and become major forces in world cycling.

"In 2007, when I signed for the team it was purely on instinct," he recalls. "I felt a good vibe straight away. Jonathan (Vaughters, the team boss) sold it to me at the start. We were, effectively, the pioneers of the anti-doping movement and to go into that strict anti-doping environment was very encouraging for me.

"He was all about giving young riders the opportunity to not have to make that choice (of turning to doping). That's one of the main reasons I chose the team. I have this incredible pride about racing clean. The team suits my philosophy and also has a fun nature.

"We wear our hearts on our sleeves but we're fallible. We're not machines. We make mistakes sometimes, tactically or whatever, but it's entertaining. We don't win very often but when we do it seems to be pretty big victories in an entertaining fashion."

That philosophy and emphasis on enjoyment means the team are a rarity among the pro peloton with most of that fledgling squad from 2008 still together. "If you look at the Tour de France team of last year, of nine guys, I think six or seven have been here since 2008," explains Martin.

"I don't think there's any other team who can say that. You form friendships rather than just being colleagues. Guys like Ryder (Hesjedal, winner of last year's Giro d'Italia), we've been team-mates for six seasons now. That shows in the way we race together. We've got a good understanding and over that time you do build a bond."

Martin became the first Irish rider to win a World Tour stage race at the Tour of Poland in 2010 and took his first Grand Tour stage win at the Tour of Spain last year. In April, with Hesjedal having done a lot of the spadework, he became the first Irish rider in more than two decades to win a classic when he soloed clear of last year's world No 1 Joaquim Rodriguez to win the Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

With 11 professional victories to his name, Martin is easily the most prolific Irish rider of the past 20 years and is ranked No 3 in the world according to the UCI. "It's been an amazing couple of months" he says. "I seemed to be able to train more and harder and even felt different on the bike this winter, for whatever reason.

"I think it's physical maturity and psychological maturity, too. I'm a lot more focused on cycling now. I'm not walking around town, seeing friends and wasting energy on my time off.

"I realised last year at the Tour de France that even after a bad crash at the Dauphine and a bout of bronchitis, I still managed to enjoy reasonable success and got some results. It got me thinking that maybe if I was 100pc focused and did everything to the letter as a professional, and really concentrated on recovery and what I ate and did core work every day, you never know what's possible.

"I think I've definitely seen the fruits of that this year. I think I've grown up a lot over the past 12 months."

With a second start in the Tour de France beckoning come July, Martin's potential to join his uncle as an Irish Tour winner is as yet untapped. While he is unsure of his role in the team this time, he is more comfortable with the thoughts of riding the world's biggest race than he was on his debut last year.

"It's nice to be in a position to say that, all things going well, I should be in the team for the Tour. I know from going into my second Vuelta that it's strange how, psychologically, you handle it much better. The first Tour is a real step into the unknown. You're always cautious.

"For instance, this year I know I'm not going to have any problems finishing. It's strange saying that, but even though I'd finished the Giro and two Vueltas before last year's Tour, you still have that unknown question.

"Maybe it will be ridiculously hard in the last week and you'll be suffering at the back. But now I've got that real confidence and know I'll be racing just as hard in the last week as the first.

"It's a very dynamic race and a lot of things can change. As a team we've got such strength in depth we're going to have multiple options. I'll be going into it looking to do something. Maybe it will be for a stage win, maybe I'll be helping Ryder or Andrew Talansky but, hopefully, I'll be on top form. I think if you can win Liege, you can win a Tour stage and who knows what I can do on the GC?"

Although he has lived in Girona for the past five years, with his parents also moving over last year, he admits he hasn't gone to a Barcelona game yet but a visit to Croke Park during the week has whetted his appetite for a Dubs game.

"I did the skywalk and the museum tour with Micheal O Muircheartaigh. I've heard his commentary before but to meet him in person was pretty special. You can really feel the history there. The stadium is amazing and I can't imagine the atmosphere in there. Unfortunately, it didn't coincide with a match but I'm desperate to go back and catch a game now."

He laughs when I suggest he might be invited out on to the pitch mid-game if he were to win the rainbow jersey of world champion in Italy come September, on a course mooted to suit him down to a tee.

"I've been thinking about this year's worlds for the last 18 months or so," he admits. "This could be the last time I have a shot at being world champion for four or five years, as the next few are flat, so it will be a big aim.

Realistic

"After Liege, it's a realistic goal to win a medal at the world championships but, like Liege, you need everything to fall into place on the day. You need to have good legs and no bad luck, just be on a super day and anything can happen.

"It's a course that will suit me this year. I hope we can work together with Cycling Ireland to get the best possible team together and maximise our conditions to achieve our potential."

Although he admits cycling is still tainted by doping scandals, Martin believes his recent run of victories indicates that things are changing in the pro peloton and says he would encourage youngsters to keep going, that things are getting better.

"A lot of people are beaten before they start, thinking if somebody's better than them they must be on drugs. I've never had that attitude. Kids can't be allowed develop that attitude.

"I'm doing it clean. I hope that inspires kids to believe it's possible. The professional peloton has definitely improved. Obviously, it's impossible to say that it's 100pc clean, but I won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the biggest race of the year – one of the hardest races of the year – clean.

"I think people have welcomed that as a sign that cycling has made a huge step forward. I always believed it was possible and now I know it's possible. That's a huge thing to be able to say."

Irish Independent