This is an extract from The Road Book Cycling Almanack 2021. To read the full contribution from Dan Martin, purchase your first edition in our shop.
The pink jersey. La maglia rosa. This icon of cycling makes frequent appearances in my earliest childhood cycling memories, generally appearing through the mist on top of some impossibly steep mountain pass. I remember Mario Cipollini, Marco Pantani, Miguel Induráin, Evgeni Berzin, Gilberto Simoni; I grew up watching the Giro, not necessarily dreaming of being there one day. I’m not sure what I was thinking.
Fast-forward to 2010 and an impromptu appearance at the Giro d’Italia, sprung on me just ten days before with little time to prepare. I set off on the expedition across one of the most beautiful countries in the world and got my arse kicked, splattered all over Italy. I returned from that race, after days of horrendous weather and epic mountain stages, with my tail between my legs and a firm determination to not return.
I’m not sure why I took such a dislike to the race but it persisted. The race started in Ireland in 2014 and I was persuaded to make an appearance that quite possibly ranks as one of the shortest Grand Tour appearances in history, making it just 15km into the race before I crashed and took down most of my team in the opening team time trial, breaking my collarbone in the process. Normally, when I watch a race from the comfort of my sofa – except for perhaps the northern Classics or Strade Bianche – the competitor in me wants to be there, and questions if I would have won if I was present. Not at the Giro.
I loved spending my May training hard at home, my afternoons relaxing, content to enjoy the suffering of others. But alas, 2021 arrived and it hit me that I was in the twilight of my career and that I needed to return to at least attempt to complete my hattrick: my collection of Grand Tour stage victories, having already succeeded – twice, in fact – in the Tour and the Vuelta. Buoyed by a successful campaign at the 2020 Vuelta, I even dared to wonder if grabbing that pink jersey was at all a possibility.
9:05am Saturday 8 May. Hours before I’m due to roll down the start ramp of the prologue, I find myself in a dentist’s chair, surrounded by unilingual (only Italian, of course) dental nurses, attempting to glue back in its rightful place a molar crown that had somehow come unstuck in an unusually sticky piece of 85 per cent dark chocolate the previous night. It was a quick procedure and within the hour I was back at the hotel, but it was one of the more bizarre starts to a Grand Tour that I have experienced. I can happily report that the tooth stayed intact for the remainder of the race. Still unsure as to whether he had cleaned it thoroughly, though.
To the race. Beginning with a prologue has always seemed quite romantic, although an increasingly rare occurrence the last years. Starting a Grand Tour should be an occasion and allowing each of the participants their moment in the spotlight as they roll down the start ramp increases the sensation of this being a big deal. Butterflies flutter as you question what lies ahead, anxious to not make a fool of yourself or make any silly mistakes. It’s a pure test of power but also skill in judging pace and the level of risk to take in the corners. In the grand scheme of things, the prologue rarely counts for much more than a morale boost, but there is always so much scrutiny over the results that the pressure is high; nobody wants to begin the three weeks on a bad note.