Irvine right on track

Anyone ever heard of the omnium?

Not to be mistaken with the layered garden vegetable that goes well with steak and mushrooms.

Omnium.

Well don’t feel bad. I’m a sports nut and before my rendezvous with Martyn Irvine, I had to deploy Google.

Omnium is the decathlon of track cycling. Endurance is key in a discipline that contains six different events: a flying lap against the clock, 30km points race, the riveting and dangerous elimination, 4,000m individual pursuit, scratch race and, to conclude, the 1km time trial.

It is a new event to the Olympics; one that represents a possible medal shot for Ireland in the shape of the 27-year-old from Newtownards, Co Down, who up until 10 years ago had never sat on a bike.

Sport wasn’t even a passing interest. PE was skipped because it was too much like hard work. In truth, everything was an effort for the moody teenager. As cars were the only thing he got any kick from, he left school at 16 to work as a mechanic at Shaws.

As fate would have it, the lads in the garage were immersed in cycling. They introduced the young buck and he loved it. Flourished too.

At a race in Navan, he met Grace McNally, a former All-Ireland medallist at underage level. She is now his fiancée and, when in Ireland, he lives with her in the Dublin village of Lusk. They haven’t set a date for the wedding yet.

“The Olympics got in the way,” he smiles.

Despite having an innate talent for the bike, how Irvine came to take the omnium route to London is a story in itself. He had been part of the Team Pursuit squad targeting these Games but the death of a close friend and the squad’s spiritual leader in a car accident started the disintegration of that dream.

“It’s been a steady progression really. There were no ‘bingo’ moments. There were a few ‘oh shit’ moments. Generally, I’ve limited my losses and it’s been a steady progression since November 2010, which was the first race.

“Paul Healion was a good mate of mine. He had an accident and that was the end of him. That was the beginning of the end of the Team Pursuit. He was the driving force, the backbone of it. He was there, even before there was a plan.

“Matt Brammeier came on board and then went off professional. A few others retired and I was left standing there on my own. What do I do now?

“I suited the mould for Olympic omnium. But there’s no track in Ireland, so there was a lot of travelling involved. I’d never done a bunch race till the European Championships in 2010 — actually I had, the Commonwealth Games in October. That was my first hit at racing on the track with other lads on it. It was sore, it hurt a lot.

“I learned a lot fast… technique and stuff. Things you don’t know are happening but it is happening. Track craft.”

He finished ninth in those Europeans and improved to fifth last year. A seventh at the World Championships in Melbourne in April secured Olympic qualification and with the margins “stupidly close”, marks him out as a genuine prospect.

He is a also a road-racer, a member of the Giant Kenda outfit in Taiwan, but the demands are flexible, even if the travel can be testing. He flies in, competes, and returns to Mallorca, where he does most of his omnium training with coach Andy Sparks. The progress he has made is remarkable.

“It was against the grain. Out of 10 people, nine thought I was an eejit. ‘With no track in Ireland, you haven’t a chance, what are you doing you mad man?’ You can do anything if you want it hard enough; focus, throw all your eggs in the one basket.”

The moody kid can resurface sometimes though. He gets down on himself but McNally talks him around and Sparks re-enthuses him.

“Everybody thinks it’s great. For every one good day, there’s 10 down days. More. 20. Training can be just mental focus. That’s the brunt of it. Every morning. ‘Why am I doing this?’

“You need to set goals or you’d crack up. I think that’s what I’m good at, thinking about the big picture. I do have my miserable moments — probably more than most — but I soon snap out of it.

“There’s more people willing to say you’re crap than you’re good. So you have to ignore that and I’m good at that. My fiancée comes in there. She’s good at saying, ‘Think why you’re doing it’, steering me in the right direction. She should be getting a salary.

“My coach is the other one. He’s the motivator. ‘Everything is doable with planning and good execution’. He’s right so far.”

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