Martin claims maiden Grand Tour stage victory in style
Daniel Martin claimed the biggest victory of his career yesterday when he outsprinted an elite five-man group at the summit of the 18km first-category ascent of Sierra de Bejar de Cotavilla to take stage eight of the Vuelta a Espana.
Martin showed his hand six kilometres from the summit when he pulled clear with his cousin Nicolas Roche, the only two Irish riders in the race leading the field for a couple of kilometres on the mountain.
Roche, however, couldn't hold the pace set by Martin on the slopes and drifted back to the chase group, which included most of the favourites for the title.
Martin continued upward alone until he was joined by last year's Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali of the Liquigas team. The duo fought hard to open a gap but the strong crosswinds near the top saw them caught by an elite group led by Britain's Bradley Wiggins with just two kilometres to go.
"It was quite windy on the climb," said Martin. "When I was away with Nibali we were grinding away into the wind but in the last couple of kilometres, when Wiggins was driving at the front, it was so hard.
"It wasn't really the climb that was hard. It was the wind. It was incredibly exposed and windy up there but I knew if I could just hang on until 200m to go I had a chance. It's different sprinting at the top of a climb than on a flat stage and I'm really confident in my sprint in those situations.
"You never really know, but I could see they were all tired that the last 100m or so were slightly downhill. I knew if I could get a gap then it would be hard to bring me back. I was on the limit but I've shown in the past that I'm quite quick in those situations."
With 200m to go, Martin unleashed the kick that has earned him 12 victories in four seasons as a pro, and became only the fourth Irish rider to win a stage at the Vuelta after Shay Elliott, Sean Kelly and Philip Deignan.
Having begun the day in the white jersey of best all-rounder, Martin's stage win saw him take over the lead of the King of the Mountains competition.
"This is the first time I've been leader of a classification on a Grand Tour," he said. "I wasn't really aiming for it but there are so many mountain-top stages here that if you do well in the stages then you're going to do well in the mountains competition."
Riding as team leader for the first time in a three-week tour, Martin (25), is still finding his feet as regards the bigger stage races.
"I'm pretty strong at the moment but I haven't ridden many three-week tours and the end of two weeks or three weeks could be very different from the end of the first week," he said.
"There are a couple of really steep climbs like today that will suit me later on. Every day is different and I haven't raced many grand tours yet so it's hard to say how well I'll be going next week or the week after."
Martin's victory propelled him up to 12th overall, just 55 seconds behind new race leader Bauke Mollema of Rabobank. The Irishman, however, is still rueing a disputed 40-second penalty imposed earlier in the week for drafting behind a team car while returning to the bunch after a call of nature. If he were to get those 40 seconds back, Martin would now be just 15 seconds behind Mollema, in fourth overall.
"I'm just going to take every day as it goes. I'm not really thinking about GC," he said.
"Obviously this is the Vuelta and in a while maybe I'll look at the trophy and realise how special it is but at the moment I'm just going to do my best to enjoy today and then do my best again tomorrow."