Sunday 19 November 2017

Irvine: 'I wasn't in a nice place in my own head, but I've a fire in my belly now'

Martyn Irvine is preparing for a return to racing after making a u-turn on his retirement plans. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Martyn Irvine is preparing for a return to racing after making a u-turn on his retirement plans. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Ciaran Lennon

Ciaran Lennon

As a champion of the track, Martyn Irvine will always be comfortable going round in circles, but when his decision to quit cycling brought him right back where it all started, his mind was left spinning.

Shortly after announcing his racing retirement last January, the then 30-year-old was back working as a car mechanic. This was where his story began over a decade ago, as he was coaxed into the chaingang by those he worked with at a garage in Bangor.

Irvine has circled the world since with a bike box for luggage, worn the rainbow jersey of a track world champion, but was now back at square one - and he hated it.

But stepping away from the sport he had loved helped him reconnect with the beauty of what he had left behind.

"Sport is hard and you piss and moan about it but it's hard because you want it to be hard," he reflects now.

"Being back in that daily grind . . . I'm living up in Lusk and was working in the city centre, the commute was just knocking the life out of me. I was turning into a zombie, getting the train in and out. When I watched the racing happening (on TV), I was thinking, that looks pretty fun. So that's kind of when I realised (I had to go back). I needed a big dose of reality to appreciated what cycling is."

Back in January, Irvine admitted he had "fallen out of love with cycling" when he ran out of road in his bid to return to an Olympic velodrome. After a year spent chasing his tail trying to qualify for Rio, he felt his racing days had come to a natural conclusion.

Life on the track had "battered the life" out of him, but the clouds failed to clear as the man who, three years earlier, had won a World Championship gold and silver on the same afternoon in a velodrome in Minsk, dipped his toes back into the real world.

"I was just a grim thing floating around, I wasn't in a nice place in my own head," he says. "I think I was just the track guy, that was my thing, and I just stopped doing that, I started to feel crap. Inside I wanted away from that but I jumped out of it with no real plan.

"When you do it on your own terms it's a good thing but I found myself down that road because the Rio door was slammed shut in my face, my hand was kind of forced.

"But it's given me a fire in my belly now; my first retirement might be a good thing in the long run, because it means you might appreciate it more. Instead of just being complacent, maybe I'll make more of an effort with racing and realise how awesome it is."

Second time around Irvine will focus solely on road racing, of which he also has plenty of experience, having raced with American outfit UnitedHealthcare and the British team Madison Genesis among others. The track, Irvine insists, is a young man's game, but at 31 he has plenty more miles left in his legs.


We talk as Irvine is recovering from a six-hour ride after getting lost in the Wicklow mountains as he concentrates on getting himself fit and down to a good racing weight. With a new perspective, Irvine is determined to have no excuses and no regrets this time around.

Watching the Rás last May from behind the steering wheel of a media car helped re-ignite the fire, and within weeks he was putting the wheels in motion for a return.

"In July or August I put some feelers out," he says. "Andrew McQuaid, the cycling agent, would be a friend of mine and I just I hit him up and said, 'would you laugh if I said I wanted to go racing again?' and he didn't think it was a stupid idea.

"That was kind of it. Nothing is set in stone, I've no contract in hand. I don't really know when and where I'll be racing in anger. I'm just happy I'll do it somewhere. I'll not regret trying it but I'd regret not trying it."

Irvine has been linked with the new Irish team Aquablue that's preparing to make a big splash at ProContinental level - although he has never met the owner Rick Delaney, a Corkman who is based in Monaco.

Full details on the start-up are yet to be revealed but they appear to be matching their ambition with their wallets, having bought the luxurious team bus from the I Am Cycling World Tour team that folds at the end of the season.

"Talking to people, the likes of Andrew, it's definitely not a wishy-washy set-up," says Irvine. "It's a rare opportunity for Irish people. I think they're just taking their time, doing everything right, and they'll make a bit of a splash when the time is right. I think when we see it in the flesh it will certainly shock a few people."

The Newtownards man is relishing the idea of being part of a team again, when his performances can't be distilled down to the simple numbers of time versus distance. And while one of his personal ambitions is to give the National Road Race Championships the sort of commitment he has never been able to in the past, Irvine will be happy to be a team player.

"I'm happy to ride, I don't have an ego, if someone's better, they're better, they deserve the teamwork. It's not like I'm a prima donna, expecting something."

Just to give it his all. New perspective, new ambitions and no regrets.

Martyn Irvine was speaking ahead of the Pieta 100 Cycle, which takes place on Sunday at nine locations around the country.

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