A LITTLE MORE than a month has passed since Martyn Irvine announced his retirement from professional cycling. The former world track champion is back in the spotlight for the first time, at the launch of this year’s An Post Rás.
It’s an afternoon of conflicting emotions. On one hand, it’s a welcome return and an event which rekindles memories of a prodigious career.
But as he sits at the top of the room for a Q&A, there’s a hint of uneasiness. The host’s first question to Irvine is about a potential return to the saddle. He instantly laughs it off.
Irvine hasn’t touched a bike in two months. He’s had no interest in going near one and has no real intention of coming back to it. Not yet anyway.
After a decade as a professional, he’s had enough. His retirement statement was refreshingly honest and cited a series of injury setbacks as the primary reason for his love of the sport to fade.
He devoted his life to cycling, immersing himself in a daily routine which eventually became too much. Three years after riding to the top of the world and ending Ireland’s 117-wait for a track cycling gold medal, Irvine walked away from it all.
“I’ve no regrets,” he tells The42. “It wasn’t a sudden decision, it was eating away at my head for a while. I was sick of the way you have to do the sport. You have to perform, you have to get a grant, win a medal and you only get four or five chances a year to do that.
“It is pressure and I could handle it but I was just sick of the daily routine and the haunt of getting up to win a bike race. I just wasn’t enjoying cycling any more.”
At the age of 30, Irvine’s head was gone. Physically he had recovered from a series of injury setbacks but mentally he was worn out. He lost the drive to ‘torture’ himself.
“I have a few bits of metal sticking out of me and I was thinking if I crashed I would be in hospital for a month,” he explained. “It was hindering my preparation a bit. Physically I was fine, I could still race my bike but the head went.”
Irvine can recall when the flame had started to flicker. In his own words, the last twelve months have been a ‘chore’. He picked himself up more than once but missing out on qualification for Rio convinced him it was the right decision.
He suffered disappointment in London four years ago, finishing 13th in the omnium event. It led him to question his future in the sport and although he carried on with a renewed determination, hoping for a shot at redemption, the nagging doubts had started.
Deep down he knew it was over. He had fallen out of love with the sport.
“It took a long time,” he said of deliberating whether to call it a day. “Because the Olympics is this year and there’s the what ifs and that still hangs over you. I’m not sure how I’ll feel when it’s on but I’m not missing it. I haven’t woken up in a sweat yet.
“It was something I wanted to do for fun and I was good at it so it was giving me a living. I just kept doing it and when I stopped making a living from it, I thought why the f**k am I doing this?
“Maybe that’s my mindset, it wasn’t bred into me to ride bikes.”
Although Irvine’s success was instant, he came to the sport late, first picking up a road bike at the age of 19. Born and raised in Newtownards in Down, he would go on to represent the Sean Kelly team in Belgium, where his talent was nurtured.
His golden moment came in Minsk in February 2013. Less than an hour after winning silver in the individual pursuit, Irvine defied fatigue and form to sensationally win the 15km men’s scratch race.
It should be regarded as one of the great Irish sporting achievements and his feat of winning seven medals in a row at major competitions will never be matched by another individual athlete from this island.
Yet the recognition never came. He was only as good as his last race and each year was a struggle financially. When the results dried up, so did the Sports Council grants and sponsorship.
“I didn’t make any money,” he continues. “I had one bad year and I wouldn’t have got a grant this year. That’s cold. You have to get results and I was riding for teams and they wanted results.
“As I said, when the money wasn’t coming in I began to question why I was putting myself through it all. It got to a stage when it wasn’t worth it. I was tired of that same routine.”
His routine in retirement is very different. Irvine is currently unemployed and spends most of his day at home.
“It’s been different, there’s been a lack of routine, getting up to no good,” he admits. “But I’m happy in my own head and it was the right thing to do. I’m still only 30 and I still think I can enjoy bikes again when I get my mojo back but I’m sick of that win or else you have no money this year.
“I have a job coming up tomorrow, brick laying. I would take it. I have no pre-conceived ideas of what I want to do. I’ve been to a few interviews but it’s definitely a big blank canvas.
“Half of me is shit scared because there’s no money coming in but half of me is thinking I spent a third of my life riding bikes and to just give it a bit of time and see what I want to really do.”
Although he’s removed himself from the sport for now, it’s hard to see Irvine staying away for too long. Our chat in one of the corridors of the GPO is politely interrupted by a familiar face, and that question of whether he’s returning any time soon crops up again.
“I’ve been honest with everybody,” he says. “They know where I’m at, they know why I did it. It’s not hard walking into a room or talking to old friends because I didn’t curse the sport. I’m not hiding anything either.
“I’d look anyone in the eye and tell them how it is and I could walk into any room and talk to people. It’s not like I’ve slagged people off or pissed them off.
“It’s another thing to look back on and feel happy with. I said it how it was and got on with. I look back on my career with fondness. As I said there are no regrets.
“I got to the top and very few people get to the top of their sports so I have to be happy with that.”
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