Dan Martin insists he feels no pressure ahead of the Ardennes Classics and says he is looking forward to the Amstel Gold Race, his first major objective of the season.
The Irishman will be expected to win at least one of the three upcoming Ardennes Classics races after he triumphed at the Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year.
"I don't see it as pressure," Martin told Cyclingnews.com fresh from a boat ride he had organised for the entire Garmin-Sharp team.
"Last year is done and dusted and while I've not forgotten about wining Liege, it's in the past now. It's all about this year. Obviously wearing number one at the race is going to be incredible and it's a pleasure to rider that race every year.
“I love the race so much. The passion that I have for these races gives me the extra percentages but as long as I do my best, and the team gives everything, we'll just wait and see what the results are in the end. That's all I can ask for."
Martin's ability as a rider has improved significantly in the last couple of seasons but, perhaps more than anything else, mental strength and confidence are his forte. After last year's impressive performances with his Liege-Bastogne-Liege win and a stage win at the Tour de France, Martin goes into every race believing he can win it.
"I'm coming into these races incredibly confident because I know that I can win them now,” he said. “I would never go into them aiming for top ten, and I've never been like that anyway. I've always just wanted to go into races in order to give my best. I've got a good track record and my best in these races is pretty good.
"That's where the big difference has come in the last couple of years. Psychologically I'm a lot stronger in that I can focus for the whole race and do everything right.
“So as long as there's no bad luck I don't see why there's any reason we can't contest for a win in at least one of the races. I don't know about all three but Fleche and Liege, they do suit me better."
However, Martin's results so far this season have been less than impressive. His progress was halted by illness in February's training camp and as a consequence he was not at his peak when lining up for the Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
Then, at the Volta a Catalunya, he suffered more of the same and has since opted for altitude training. Although Martin has yet to win a race this season he refuses to let it affect his confidence and believes he is ready.
"I feel good. I used De Brabantse Pijl - La Flèche Brabançonne how I wanted to and I got out of it what I wanted. I was riding in the wind for Nathan [Haas] a bit and making the race a lot harder for the finale but I was still there without too much trouble," he explained.
"I was surprised with the sensations and I'm feeling really good. I felt good at altitude and I'm getting my body into the swing of things again. I had a couple of niggles last week but I'm excited and optimistic about the coming week.
"I went into Tirreno-Adriatico suffering from an illness. I was 100 per cent healthy but I just wasn't totally firing. I couldn't go flat out and my body was in a bit of shock when I then went flat out in Catalunya. It was the first time I'd gone really hard since October but I think it's going to work well for the Giro and I think I'm going into the Ardennes with a really solid base."
Garmin-Sharp are not the overwhelming favourites for the hilly classics. But they will be under pressure to defend their and Martin's Liege victory last year.
One of Garmin's key support riders Alex Howes is unsure how the team will respond to the pre-race expectation, especially when they line up in Liege next weekend. They have never been in this position before.
“I’ve never had to defend Liège. We’ve never been in this position before. I think we’re fortunate in the fact that we’ve always been seen as underdogs,” Howes said, while relaxing at the team hotel a short distance from the start of Amstel.
“But maybe that’ll change a little bit this year. But honestly, you look at the guys coming to these races. Guys like Gilbert, and Purito [Joaquim Rodriguez], [Alejandro] Valverde. Hitters. They’ll have a full squad around them, very deep squads as well. We’re definitely not the favorites.”
Come Sunday in Valkenburg, it’s all business. The Amstel Gold Race climbs more than 13,000 feet and has riders packed into small streets for six, seven hours.
The Ardennes classics are three races held in the Ardennes in Belgium and Dutch Limburg. Only Davide Rebellin (2004) and Philippe Gilbert (2011) have won all three races in one and the same season.
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