Irvine takes the long road back to the top

Injury. For professional sports people, it is both the bogeyman outside the window and the wolf at the door.

Irvine takes the long road back to the top

It brings with it torment, mental and physical. Losses embrace the personal, as well as the financial.

Ego, that fragile rock on which all the best stand, takes a battering.

For so many, its possible appearance is an accepted fact of life, every bit as much a staple of their daily diet as protein shakes or carbohydrate loading. As George Chapman, the English playwright once noted, “without danger, the game grows cold”.

Everyone sees the damage being done. Few take the time to log the after-effects. Darren Anderton, the former Tottenham and England player, once remarked how everyone thought his ‘Sicknote’ nickname was amusing. Apart from himself.

Abe Simon, a former US heavyweight boxer, put it eloquently. “There’s a whole lot of difference between pain and damage. The bruises from punches are like icebergs. You see only a small part of the damage on the surface.”

It’s just short of two months since Martyn Irvine, Ireland’s former world champion and silver medallist for a second time at the same event 10 months ago, broke a collar bone in a six-bike crash during the Omnium race at a World Cup in Mexico.

It’s a moment he has described in detail on his painfully honest blog. The immediate aftermath is spelled out too. The bumpy ride in the ambulance. The 10-hour flight home with his busted arm in a sling. Disembarking the plane like an OAP in a wheelchair.

The days and weeks since have clearly been difficult. Home for the most part isn’t his place in Dublin but Cycling Ireland’s regular training camp in Mallorca. The journey back to full fitness has been long, arduous and exhausting, even if support is at hand. His wife Grace is in the Balearics with him and medical staff from the Sports Institute of Northern Ireland paid a visit and gave him a rehab programme after declaring their amazement at just how far he had already come.

A trip back to Ireland for a cycling awards ceremony allowed friends and fans to wish him well. Cycling Ireland’s head coach Brian Nugent has never been anything other than a font of cascading positivity, but Irvine has found it hard to bottle those vibes.

“My current mental state I’d say is a disaster,” Irvine told the Irish Examiner before Christmas.

“The Worlds last February seem a long, long way away right now. It’s hard to sum up how I feel in one sentence, really. I’m definitely hoping that I’m at the bottom of the dip.

“I’m back training. I’m kind of doing half of everything. I’m in the gym, trying to strengthen up. I feel like I’m back taking baby steps again. I’m just over a bit of a head cold as well, so it feels like one thing after another. There’s certainly been a few curve balls.”

That honesty is unusual in a world where public utterances are coated in cliches and the macho stereotype is still so admired. Irvine clearly possesses ample amounts of mental fortitude.

This, after all, is a guy who has broken new ground for Irish cycling by winning three medals at world championships, a bronze at both European and Commonwealth levels and who is a seven-time Irish national track and road racing champion.

Bad and all as his crash in Mexico might have been, it was a “walk in the park” compared to the damage done in March last year when he was involved in a collision 50km into the fourth stage of the Tour de Taiwan. A fractured hip was the prize for that particular incident, one which occurred just a month after the high of claiming a silver and the gold at the world track championships in Minsk. The recovery process has, if anything, been more difficult this time around.

In Mexico, he took the decision to have the surgery delayed until his return to Ireland and one consequence was an infection that delayed the operation. Then there was London earlier this month. As Basil Fawlty would say, don’t mention the war.

Long story short, he found himself saddling up at the World Cup event though his shoulder was still in bits and he was in no fit state to compete. The reason was that failure to line up at every World Cup meet could cost him his qualifying shot at the Olympics in 2016.

“It was a joke,” he said of an event took in mostly as a frustrated onlooker. “I just felt awful. It’s a cutthroat business, sport, and if I didn’t do it I could have suffered in the long run, but the whole thing was clear as mud.”

It was approaching mid-December before he finally returned to training but, as he said, progress can be lost in the sands of time which, despite the presence of “heaps” of other cyclists in Mallorca, he is largely been spending by himself.

The New Year comes loaded with uncertainty.

Fitness aside, the immediate priority is the next round of the World Cup series, in Colombia in mid-January, and then the World Championships in Paris, in February. Yet, for all his travails, a 10th and sixth-place finish are the respective goals, with Rio the ultimate goal.

As with most track cyclists, Irvine also spends a considerable portion of the season out on the road and 2015 will see him make the switch from American outfit UnitedHealthcare to the British-based Madison Genesis.

It seems like a good fit. Directeur Sportif is Roger Hammond, the former British Olympian whom Irvine watched claim a place on the podium at the famed Paris-Roubaix one-day race in 2004 when the Irishman was negotiating his rookie year as a pro.

Irvine was impressed with the team’s efforts last season and Hammond has been happy to leave the Irishman on a long leash as the process of rehabilitation takes precedence, so it will be next month before he touches base.

Irvine’s goals for the road are simple and reflective of his recent past.

“Just to enjoy road racing. Track cycling is a real pressure cooker and there’s only a few times every year for you to fly the flag for Ireland and try to get a medal. The road is a different bubble and it’s a well set-up team.”

New team, new year. Irvine is ready to go again with a clean slate.

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