Tony Martin: Commanding the cobbles

Tony Martin would prefer to be by himself. Certainly he seems less than thrilled to be fielding his seventeenth round of questions in the space of two hours, while photographer Laura poses him this way and that, but I get the feeling he generally prefers his own company. 

It’s perfectly possible that the early interviews were jollier affairs than mine, though one nameless podcaster emerged from their meeting referring to Martin as “Tonybot”, so I’m doubtful. 

Still, if it is indeed “not just me”, then the personality he presents off the bike is merely a mirror of his on-bike self – a character which has carried him to four world championship time trial titles, four Tour de France stages and another forty-odd race wins besides. With every set of rainbows and the lion’s share of the rest coming from time trials, that psychology is one that seems to have served him well.

Tony Martin

It also, arguably, fits his plans for the future, which involve softening the focus on TTs and taking aim at Paris-Roubaix. The Hell of the North, probably more than any other Monument, is a race an individual can win.

Turning 33 this year, Martin has left it late to make a career change, particularly one which finds him targeting one of the hardest races in the world. It’s a testament to his profile that he’s nonetheless taken seriously as a contender.

It was between his third and fourth world championships that Martin found his eye beginning to rove: “I won plenty of TTs and the motivation was settling down a little bit… I wanted to go for some new goals.” 

Though the step up to Grand Tour contender might have been the more obvious path for him to take, he admits that he “tried a few times but I wasn’t able to handle it.”

Timing has undoubtedly contributed to his decision to plump for Paris-Roubaix. Since Cancellara and Boonen left the stage there has been no clear candidate to become the next king of the cobbles.

Last year’s winner Greg van Avermaet is probably as close as there is, while another possibility is the same race’s runner-up – and perennial bridesmaid – Zdeněk Štybar. Beyond those two it starts to feel like you’re scrabbling around in the Arenburg dust.

So Tony Martin is as good a shout as any.

It certainly helps that, despite having only twice taken part in the race, Martin clearly loves riding it. In an unguarded moment his eyes light up as he describes the sensation of riding over the stones at 50kph as “like almost flying”.

He argues that Paris-Roubaix has more in common with his specialist discipline than many believe: “It’s a kind of time trialling,” he says. “It’s not about strategy, it’s about finding a nice rhythm on the cobbles and you go for it.”

Tony Martin

But Martin also plays down my suggestion that the race is particularly tailored to the lone ranger type. 

“When you’re at the back on the cobbles you have almost no chance, so you really need a strong team around you, to support you 100 per cent. Roubaix is attacking attacking attacking, so if you have support from a team-mate it means so much more.”

One thing with which Martin would agree is that he’s not known for his prowess as a sprinter. In his professional career, outside of time-trials, he has only won once by less than a second.

If he is to win Paris-Roubaix he will need to go long – just as he did when the 2015 Tour rolled over the roads of Paris-Roubaix, consciously uncoupling himself from the lead bunch with 3km to go, to take both the stage into Cambrai and the yellow jersey – or really long. The most dominant of his four Tour de France stage victories came when he jumped into the break after ten kilometres, before going solo for the last 60.

Read: Why is there no women’s Paris-Roubaix? 

He compares that 2014 ride with Tom Boonen’s 2012 Paris-Roubaix victory, which led him to believe he could one day win the race himself. It proved that “you don’t have to wait until the last kilometres, you also can go on attack, try to make the race hard.”

Tony Martin might not win Paris-Roubaix this year or even next, but if he ever does claim a cobble, he’ll have done it alone. And that’ll suit him just fine. 

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