A chat with cyclist-philosopher Guillaume Martin

Guillaume Martin often flies under the radar, but he was France's best Grand Tour rider in 2021.

Photo: Lucy Le Lievre

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This year Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) was the best French rider when it came to the Grand Tours. He finished in the top 10 of both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. No one did better. The philosopher-cyclist is already looking ahead to next year but lives by the motto of “carpe diem”, or “seize the day”. 

Martin’s season ran way into October with the Veneto Classic his last race. With 80 race days including two Grand Tours it was one of the longest seasons of his career but it started quite late after an injury Martin acquired while training in the Sierra Nevada at the end of January. Martin started the preparation for the 2022 season with another crash. 

“I just started again with some easy rides after three weeks off the bike completely,” he tells me. Behind him I spot a trainer. He smiles when I point at it. “I am not a big fan of Zwift in the winter but I had a little crash with the mountain bike and fell on my wrist. Luckily there is only a small fracture so it shouldn’t be too bad. Let’s hope this was the last crash.”

Martin started his pro career in 2016 with the Belgian Wanty-Groupe Gobert team after winning the U23 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2015. It was an unexpected choice for the French climbing hopeful but he deliberately chose to develop as a rider outside of the French spotlights. 

Fast forward to 2021 and, in his second season with Cofidis, Martin was ninth in the Tour de France and eighth in the Vuelta a España. He won the one-day climber’s race, the Mercan’tour Classic, in a dominant way. He also scored top 20 places in the three Ardennes Classics Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

“On paper it was almost my best season,” he reflects. “It was a hard winter with that crash in the Sierra Nevada and therefore a difficult start. The season wasn’t stable, at least not the way I experienced it. Some race days were really good and some bad while my sensations at training were always the same.

“In the Vuelta I started really bad but after stage 10 I even was second in the general classification. Then I crashed on stage 16 and lost that position in the GC again. The whole season was like that with ups and downs.

“I hope for some stability in my results and on bike sensations next year. I also hope to avoid mechanicals and crashes. I hope this one with the mountain bike was the last one,” Martin adds with a smile. 

Guillaume Martin in the big breakaway on Tour de France stage 14.

Martin has started and finished seven Grand Tours in his career so far: five editions of the Tour de France and two of the Vuelta. The Giro d’Italia presented a course for 2022 with only 26 time trial kilometers – Martin’s weak point as a GC specialist – and with many uphill finishes and altitude meters. It’s a feast for the climbers but as a Frenchman Martin is inclined to return to the Tour de France. 

“We haven’t defined a program just yet,” he says diplomatically, “but I want to discover the Giro d’Italia one day. I don’t know if that will be for next year. It’s true the course in Italy would suit me well but honestly we haven’t decided yet.”

Martin’s eighth place in last year’s Tour de France was his best result in a Grand Tour. He profited from the lack of control by one team after Tadej Pogačar more or less secured the lead in the race after week one. It opened up many opportunities for breakaways and Martin joined the break on three stages where that early move made it all the way to the finish line. 

“Next year it depends on the first week again,” he looks ahead. “There will be echelons, cobbles and potentially crashes. That will define how the other two weeks pan out. I do think the course favors long breakaways and that gives me opportunities. The general classification is always my primary goal but I think I can win a stage too. This year I was close a few times already. One day it will happen.”

Guillaume Martin won the polkadot jersey in the 2020 Vuelta a España.

Guillaume Martin is a rider in the top 50 of the UCI rankings, but he doesn’t have the same pressure on his shoulders as other French riders. Indeed he often seems to fly under the radar.

“I have the impression that I am not that well known or that there is a lot of pressure from it,” he says. “Bardet, Alaphilippe or Pinot are far better known. I don’t have the same experiences as Thibaut Pinot. His result in the Tour de France of 2014 [Pinot was third] came after a bit of a drought in French cycling.

“He was the first one back on the podium after a long time so that makes his situation different. He was dubbed the future Hinault or Fignon immediately. I came after him and after Bardet. That made a huge difference.”

Guillaume Martin wins the inaugural edition of the Mercan’Tour Classic Alpes-Maritimes, his only victory of the season.

Martin is not only a bike rider; he is also a published author. So far, he has published two books on philosophy, a subject he holds a masters degree in from Université Paris Nanterre.

“I don’t think the books I write are too complicated,” he smiles at my question. “It’s not that they are lacking depth but they are accessible to many people. For me writing is also a time to balance. As a [pro] cyclist you have many more hours to do other things. I could also lay down on the couch,” he laughs. “Although writing takes a bit of an effort, it relaxes me as well.” 

Of course, Martin is not the only one with a university degree in the peloton. Many development teams emphasise the dual career of combining education with sports. That’s a relatively new development in the men’s peloton while it has been more common in the women’s peloton for quite some time.

“You don’t specifically have to be intelligent to complete university,” he explains. “I see a lot of intelligence in the peloton nowadays and think that’s so much more than a few years ago. A career can be short, maybe 15 years, or even shorter if you are unlucky with a crash. There is more focus on a Plan B with the current generation than the previous one.” 

Martin’s Cofidis team is one of the men’s cycling setups introducing a women’s team with the Tour de France Femmes on the horizon next season. It will spark extra interest for women’s cycling, Martin feels. 

“I have been following women’s cycling throughout the years,” he says. “It develops very fast and it’s interesting to follow, especially now Cofidis has a women’s team. I will follow them with extra interest. After the Tour de France there is always a bit of a depression on the couch so it’s great that they scheduled the Tour de France Femmes then.

“When you speak about cycling, the big audience sees and talks about the Tour de France. It’s a huge step forward to have a Tour de France Femmes with the same level of organization as the Tour de France hommes. I hope it will attract more sponsors, increase the level and develop the sport further.

“The businesses invested in cycling see the opportunities and the need for equality. The representation of women is a talking point everywhere. We still have much progress to make but it’s happening. The companies follow that road as well.

“Since a few years there is a team for riders with a disability within Cofidis and that’s also great representation. Talent is everywhere. If we embrace diversity and become more diverse, everything becomes more interesting.”

Time trialling will always be Martin’s Achilles’ heel when it comes to Grand Tour racing.

“When it comes to diversity in our peloton,” Martin continues, “we still have much to do but we are heading in the right direction. The roots of cycling are very European and you see the sport has a strong basis in four or five European countries. The world is becoming more global though and we should embrace the global world more.

“African cycling is developing fast and the riders arrive at the highest level. The World Cycling Centre [founded by the UCI in Aigle] does great work but we still have issues to overcome. The talent is everywhere but there are economical burdens for African riders but also visa issues. My colleague Natnael Berhane experienced that often. We should address that.”

Martin is a thinker in everything he does but he is also a lover of the sport of cycling and sports in general. He grew up with it and comes from a very competitive family. 

“I know a bit about the history of the sport but knew more as a kid,” he says. “My dad and I used to play these quizzes and I knew all the Tour de France winners. I must admit I forgot a bit of that,” he says with a smile. “Sport was important in our home. We are a competitive family and I can’t see my life without a form of competitive sport to be honest. It’s something I need in my life.”  

The 2022 season will be Martin’s seventh at the highest level of the sport. As noted, the Tour de France is most likely on the cards again, but other likely goals include the Ardennes Classics. These are some of the races he’s most keen for success at.

“I don’t have a specific dream but I have goals in cycling,” he explains. ”I am working on my time trial for example. I will never win a time trial but I can improve. I am also missing a big win in the Tour or become champion of France or win a Classic. I love the history of a race like Liège-Bastogne-Liège although I think a Tour de France stage is more important in France.

“I hope that happens next year. I am not a dreamer. I live by the theme of ‘carpe diem’. I don’t dream of the future but I live today.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.