Comeback king Irvine on the road to inspire new Irish team
Martyn Irvine is savouring his six-hour bike rides around Ireland at the moment. One day he will find himself in the Wicklow mountains. Another it will be Newry before heading home to wife Grace in Lusk in north Dublin.
The thought of such long, gruelling journeys at the start of the year when he announced his retirement from the sport would have driven him to distraction, but now preparing to go back into the competitive arena with Aqua Blue, the first Irish professional cycling team, he is revelling in every mile.
Post-retirement, the 31-year-old from Newtownards worked as a car mechanic, just as he had done before hitting the big time in the sport and becoming World champion on the track three years ago.
Irvine, as straight talking as they come, said: "I was in Dublin working on cars and I was back in that routine that I had been in 10 or 11 years before. I realised that nothing had changed in that routine. It got boring pretty fast."
The Ulsterman asked his friend and cycling agent Andrew McQuaid if he felt a comeback was possible. The timing turned out to be perfect with Cork businessman Rick Delaney putting together an ambitious plan to make Aqua Blue a player on the professional scene.
Irvine was offered a contract to join the new venture and jumped at the opportunity.
"Having a professional Irish cycling team is massive," said Irvine.
"People don't realise how great this could be.
"For starters it can boost cycling across the country and there are jobs for Irish riders down the line once the team is established. That's something Irish cycling has lacked. There wasn't that much for Irish riders to strive for.
"The team will obviously use European experience to get their foot in the door but I definitely believe the team can help nurture Irish riders in the future.
"It's clear Rick is a big fan of the sport and for all that he is investing I genuinely hope he gets what he wants out of it."
Irvine intends to be fit and ready come February when Aqua Blue hope to be on the start line, racing somewhere in Europe.
His training days take him to some of the wild and wonderful places on the island and as Martyn reveals, he has come across some arresting sights, including a famous Hollywood actor.
"At this time of year I'm getting in two or three six or seven-hour rides per week and then come November time it is my goal to get tuned up," said the county Down native.
"We're in Lusk in north Dublin so I go through the city and then over to Wicklow. I go as far away as I can in the daylight and around Wicklow is very good. I enjoy it there. I've also been to Newry. If you go away for three hours then you can be home in three hours, that's the way I look at it.
"I'm loving it. I never thought I would enjoy doing a six-hour ride!
"I do it on my own. I would listen to a podcast when I'm riding and just get lost in the journey.
"One day I saw Mel Gibson when I was riding around Sally's Gap in Wicklow.
"I came over the crest of a hill and there were 100 cars parked and film crews everywhere and Mel Gibson in the middle of it! It was quite a sight."
During his short time out of racing, Irvine enjoyed spending more time with his wife Grace (pictured below).
The 2012 Olympian, though, insists that Grace was right behind his decision to go back on the road.
"I have had an awesome time at home doing normal things but Grace was very encouraging about me racing again and telling me to go for it," he said.
"I won't have to train away as much as I did earlier in my career but I'll still be a bit of a stranger.
"I'm as happy as I've ever been and I'm motivated to try and do this right.
"I am really excited about the coming year."
Team owner Delaney is hoping Irvine's experience and knowledge can help younger riders.
Irvine states he will happily do what is good for the team.
"I did some mentoring in my last track season," stated Irvine, who proved to be an able pundit during RTE's cycling coverage of the Rio Olympics.
"I was the older, more experienced track rider and I didn't mind helping people so I would be ready to do that again if necessary.
"If I can stop someone from making mistakes that I have, well why not?
"On one hand I'm back to school, and on the other there are younger guys in the team who haven't done what I have done in terms of racing and on the track scene, so I'll go with the flow and do what I'm asked and try to deliver for the team.
"I don't have any pre-conceived ideas about winning this or that. I want to go in and do what they want me to do."
The ultimate for Aqua Blue is to race in the Tour de France one day.
"Yes, that's the ambition," said Irvine, who won gold at the 2013 World Championships in the 15km Scratch Race in Belarus less than an hour after claiming silver in the Individual Pursuit.
"If you don't have a dream you don't get anything. You have to see the picture of what you want to get there.
"It is not impossible. It would take a lot of money and a lot of planning and a structure put in place.
"If everything went well then it is possible, but this year will be a learning curve to see how everything is done in terms of travelling around Europe, and if everything is going strong it wouldn't be impossible to one day start on the Tour.
"My aim is for the team to have success.
"If I was part of a team that helped one of our guys win a massive race in Europe, that would be just fantastic. It's going to be brilliant to be involved in all that lies ahead."
While Irvine will no doubt prove to be a key team member for Aqua Blue, he still retains some personal goals such as competing for Northern Ireland again in the Commonwealth Games, potentially on the track, and winning an Irish Road Race title.
Don't bet against the Ards man.
It's good to have him back in the saddle.
Q&A with Aqua Blue owner Rick Delaney
Rick Delaney is the owner and founder of the Aqua Blue cycling team. It is the first ever Irish professional cycling team. Steven Beacom caught up with the millionaire businessman from Cork to ask him about his plans for the team.
SB: So, Rick, why did you want to start a professional Irish cycling team?
RD: I have a passion for cycling. I have always wanted to have a professional cycling team and I always questioned why Ireland never had a professional cycling team and tried to understand why it didn’t, so we explored that and looked at the challenges like the financial side and we have come up with what we believe to be a sustainable model.
SB: What are you trying to achieve with Aqua Blue?
RD: We want to try and make an impact first and foremost. We want to try and develop young Irish talent and find young Irish talent and bring it on to its full potential and we want to win races and put Irish cycling on the map. We want to compete and we want to try to build a fan base and give the Irish cycling community a team that they can support. The Irish are very passionate about their sport and we don’t have a cycling team to support. I think when you go to cycling events and you see the amount of Irish people at the events, you think how cool it would be to have an Irish team performing at these events. We were at the Worlds in Doha last week and at the finish line there were Dutch, Germans and lo and behold there were Mayo, Galway and Dublin jerseys as well as five or six Irish jerseys. They are the people we want to appeal to. We want to try and build up an Irish fan base and deliver for them.
SB: You have brought Northern Ireland rider Martyn Irvine on board.
RD: Yes, Martyn has a wealth of knowledge and I think he still has something to offer on the road. I also think he could play an important part in a mentoring role, bringing on younger riders and driving younger riders. He can give them guidance and education. I think he is brilliant for Irish cycling. We couldn’t have chosen better.
SB: When you first unveiled Aqua Blue as a professional team, you talked about dreams of competing in the Tour de France and other big events.
RD: They are not just dreams. They are 100% goals for us and we will perform at Grand Tour level. Our first Grand Tour won’t be the Tour de France but don’t be surprised if we get an invite to one of the Grand Tours sooner rather than later. We were at the official launch of the Tour de France in Paris earlier this week and the amount of people congratulating us and showing an interest in us and the enthusiasm in a new fresh team with a fresh approach was great. More importantly, we have a strong team of riders. It’s not a dream. We will perform at Grand Tours.
SB: When the Giro d’Italia started in Northern Ireland, it had an impact in getting more people here cycling. Can your team do something similar?
RD: We want to get people wanting to be part of the team, we want young lads out training on their bikes hoping one day that they may ride for the team. We also want to give the fans a jersey, an Irish jersey, that represents an Irish cycling team and in turn to get more people all over Ireland on their bikes.