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A Podium Seeker With a Difference

At 27, Guillaume Martin is a late bloomer at the Tour de France

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“Flaubert said that ‘one can only think of being seated.’ Nietzsche opposed him by saying that ‘only the thoughts that one has while walking are worth something.’ Well, the bike reconciles Nietzsche and Flaubert by combining their two conditions: We are both sitting and running when we pedal! So, to do philosophy, ride a bike!

— from “Socrate À Vélo,” by Guillaume Martin

There’s never been a Tour de France competitor quite like Guillaume Martin (pronounced “Ghee-ome Mar-teh”)—especially a rider who’s sitting in third place after one of the Tour’s toughest opening weeks. Martin has published a philosophical book (“Socrate À Vélo” or “Socrates on a Bike”), he’s written columns for an intellectual newspaper (Le Monde) and he’s had one of his plays performed in theatres. Other bike racers have written books, such as Louison Bobet’s brother Jean, whose writing career came after his retirement from cycling. Any number have supplied words for newspaper columns, such as Nicolas Roche, whose Tour diary is currently in the Irish Independent. But I can’t think of any who have also written a play.

By John Wilcockson | Images by Chris Auld

Martin comes from Normandy, the French region that produced five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil. Like Anquetil, Martin grew up in a rural environment—but not in the traditional sense. His parents, Daniel and Marie, moved from Paris when he was very young after they bought a dilapidated 16th century manor, La Boderie, which they have restored over the years with their two sons. It now houses a gîte (a rural inn) that sleeps 30 people, the father’s aikido dojo and his mother’s theatre company. They also have farm animals, including donkeys that guests can ride.

After high school in nearby Flers, Martin obtained a bachelors at the University of Rennes and completed his education at the University of Paris-Nanterre, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 2015. At that point, he’d already been racing bikes for six years. With the French national team, he rode the junior worlds in 2011 and competed in the under-23 Tour de l’Avenir three times. His best results came the same year he earned his master’s, when he won the espoirs Liège–Bastogne–Liège and a mountain stage of the Avenir in the French Alps. Although he twice had “trainee” spells with French pro teams, they didn’t offer him a pro contract—likely because of Martin’s unconventional background, which included trekking through the Himalayas on foot.

Guillaume Martin (center) on stage 9 of the 2020 Tour de France. Image: Chris Auld.

As a result, he signed a two-year deal with a Belgian team, the second-division Wanty-Goubert squad. That proved a wise choice for Martin, because it gave him the chance to learn his trade outside of the media spotlight that often jeopardizes the careers of promising French pros. Wanty-Goubert also gave him the chance to lead the team in several stage races—including, in his rookie season, the mountainous Tour of Austria where he placed second overall. Because of Martin’s growing profile, his team scored a wild-card entry to the 2017 Tour de France; he took third on one mountain stage and finished 23rd overall. And the good form he took out of that Tour saw him win five lesser races in a five-week period to end the season.

His consistently improving results—21st at the 2018 Tour, 12th overall in 2019—were enough for him to finally get a top slot on a French team, Cofidis, that has returned to the UCI WorldTour this year. Cofidis has been rebuilding since former Tour yellow jersey Cédric Vasseur became the team manager three years ago. Earlier this year, Vasseur said: “We persuaded Guillaume Martin to join us. He’s a great prospect with significant room for improvement…and has everything required to break into the elite.”

Even Vasseur couldn’t have hoped for a better start from Martin. He began this year in Argentina by winning the KOM title at the Vuelta a San Juan that included fourth place (out-sprinting final winner Remco Evenepoel) on the highest mountaintop finish. Back in France, after an altitude camp a month later, he placed third and fourth at two one-day races and finished 12th overall at Paris–Nice. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic…and all the unknowns of what turned out to be a 20-week break in the season.

At 5-foot-8 and 121 pounds, Martin has the perfect build for tackling high mountain stages—and during the long break he focused on building his altitude tolerance. From Paris­–Nice he first went to his home in Lyon and with his girlfriend drove to the family farm in Normandy. There, besides virtual training sessions with his Cofidis teammates, he worked on building projects at the gîte and even did some laps around the property on a mountain bike. When the French pros were allowed to restart training on the road in mid-May, he planned some altitude camps with his longtime coach Samuel Bellenoue, who moved with him from Wanty-Goubert to Cofidis this year.

Guillaume Martin (red/white Cofidis jersey) on stage 6 of the 2020 Tour de France. Image: Chris Auld.

So, through June and July, Martin first went to the National Nordic Ski Center in the Jura mountains for two weeks, sleeping in an hypoxic chamber; and then with three teammates he made a three-week trek through the Alps, riding some of the upcoming Tour stages, while staying at high-elevation hotels in Isola 2000, Orcières-Merlette, Tignes, Mont Cenis and Montgenèvre. The benefits of this training immediately showed when the season restarted: third place at the Mont Ventoux Challenge, eighth at the Tour de l’Ain (including fourth on the Grand Colombier mountaintop finish behind current Tour rivals Primož Roglič, Egan Bernal and Nairo Quintana) and third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné.

At this 2020 Tour, Martin has raced faultlessly through the opening nine stages. Knowing the uphill finish at Orcières-Merlette on stage 4, he was the first of the top climbers to make a sharp acceleration, drawing out Roglič and Tadej Pogačar and taking the third-place time bonus. And on the Pyrenean stages, he finished with the other race leaders on Saturday, and in the frenzied fight up the Marie-Blanque steeps on Sunday he was very close to catching Bernal and Roglič—and still finished only 11 seconds behind them in Laruns.

Expect Martin to be on the defensive over the next several days leading to the expected major battle next Sunday on the fearsomely steep Grand-Colombier—where a performance similar to the one he made at the Tour de l’Ain would make the final Tour podium a real goal. As his team boss Vasseur said last week about Martin’s ambitions: “To reach the stars you first have to see the moon.” And to achieve such a result in his first WorldTour season, Martin might well conjure some words written by Nietzsche, his philosopher hero: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.”