Israel Start-Up Nation leader Dan Martin kicked off his second Grand Tour of the season with a strong performance on the opening stage, taking third place atop the Alto de Arrate for a promising start to a truncated 18-day Vuelta a España.
The Irishman came in just behind Ineos Grenadiers' Richard Carapaz and a second down on stage winner, Jumbo-Visma's Primož Roglič. His third place looks a sign of an upward trajectory after fifth place at La Flèche Wallonne and faces a host of similarly steep uphill finishes suited to his abilities over the next three weeks.
Spain has been a happy hunting ground for Martin in the past with five of his 20 career wins coming in the country, including one at La Covatilla in 2011 Vuelta, overall at the 2013 Volta a Catalunya plus three podiums and two stage wins at the race.
He returns this year, not with stage wins on the mind as was the case at a Tour de France disrupted by recovery from a fractured sacrum suffered at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but instead aiming at a general classification bid.
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"That was always the plan," he said after the finish. "But we take it day by day. We have no pressure here and we just enjoy the race.
"We have a very young team and it's great experience for them all to ride the [general] classification. It's very early in the race but it's a nice start."
When Roglič's teammate Sepp Kuss had kicked off the attacking 4.6 kilometres from the finish of the stage, Martin was there getting back on with the Slovenian on his wheel and he'd put in an attack of his own 500 metres later.
He hung in with the other leaders – three Jumbo-Visma men and Carapaz plus Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) and Enric Mas (Movistar) – and looked at ease in the front group on the Vuelta's first big challenge. Later, Martin commented on how hard the race was, noting that a headwind on the climb only added to the difficulties.
"It was a very hard day to start a Grand Tour and you can see that with the gaps in the finish," said Martin. "There was a pretty strong headwind on the last climb, so it was a game of cat and mouse.
"Primož was just too strong in the end when he attacked, but I'm happy to be in the fight and I hope the good legs stay with me so we can fight for a stage in the next days."
The race marks Israel Start-Up Nation's debut participation at the Vuelta a España, and Martin plays the role of both road and GC leader as a veteran of more Grand Tour participations than the seven other men put together.
Five riders in the squad – US climber James Piccoli, plus Mikhel Räim, Omer Goldstein, Alexis Renard and Matteo Badilatti – are making their Grand Tour debut, while Reto Hollenstein and Rory Sutherland can count three Vueltas and 13 Grand Tours between them. Martin hailed their efforts on what was a strikingly tough opening day, though.
"The team did a great job to protect me all day and I had really good legs," he said. "It was my first time riding with a lot of these guys and they did a fantastic job so I'm happy with how I'm feeling and I'm surprised with how I'm feeling, but it's a good start."