Ireland’s love affair with cycling is due in no little part to the epic tales passed down from the lieutenants to the domestiques in the peloton regarding the exploits of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche.
Between them, Kelly and Roche achieved the top accolades in the sport in the latterpart of the last century.
Waterford born Kelly won the Paris-Nice race seven times in a row in the 1980s and, at one time, was reputed to be the highest paid athlete from Ireland in any sport. Roche, meanwhile, from Dublin, clocked up 59 professional victories including the ultimate prize, the Tour de France, in 1987.
Time is probably not on the side of Newtownards rider Martyn Irvine if he has any thoughts of trying to emulate the successes of these two. However, when he competes for Ireland in the omnium event at London 2012, he will be showing the same level of desire that Kelly and Roche possessed back in the days when cycling was not as popular an Olympic event as it has become.
'I have no idea what hooked me onto cycling,' Irvine laughs when asked to go back to the beginning. 'At the start it was getting out on the road and going for miles. That was something new to me then. I just love racing I suppose.
'I was 18 and working as an apprentice mechanic in Shaws of Bangor in Conlig when it all began. I never had an interest, but the guys from the workshop and the valet department got me hooked. After that I started playing around on a mountain bike.
'Then I got a road bike via Bikeworks in Bangor. They steered me towards the Ards cycling club and it snow balled from there. I used go out racing after I finished work. I did my first open race when I was 19 and two years later I was competing in Belgium. There was never anyone in my family that did sport. I’m the freak.'
In London, Irvine will be Ireland’s sole representative in the omnium event – a series of six different disciplines including a flying lap, a 4,000 metres individual pursuit and time trial. Qualification was sealed when he rode to a seventh place finish at the World Track Championships in Melbourne in April 2012.
'Honestly, I never really felt the pressure. I just kept doing what I was doing and I was confident it would work out. The race itself was a roller coaster, physically and mentally. You will never do good in all races and the bad ones take their toll on your head. I was fried when the weekend was over.'
Yet there was little time to dawdle. Preparations for London 2012 needed to get fully underway. Irvine returned to the northern hemisphere to base himself in Majorca where his spartan regime involves a daily grind of track, road and gym sessions.
'While I love racing on the road, I definitely prefer the track,' he admits. 'It suits my riding style and from the start I wasn't completely useless. It’s hard to juggle both.'
But that is what Irvine has had to do. He is contracted to the Korean-based Great Kendal cycling team and appreciates how they have fitted in with his Olympic ambitions. 'The team is really flexible, I can balance my training and racing to suit the track which works perfectly. It involves a lot of forward thinking to get the balance right between racing and training. A good plan is key.'
And the overall plan is to aim for a podium finish. 'It’s achievable,' says Irvine, and you believe him.
'I want to be standing on the podium come August. I'm training every day with that thought in my mind and there is no reason why I can't be there. A few years ago any thought of me going to the Olympics would have been some kind of a joke, but then I saw there was chance and I went for it. To be part of the Irish cycling team in London is massive. It puts track cycling on the big stage again.'
Irvine's road to London hasn’t been achieved on pedal power alone. He places great store in the help that has come his way from the Sports Institute Northern Ireland and his fiancée Grace with whom he lives in Dublin. 'She is the most important person in my life. She is always there to encourage me. I can honestly say that I wouldn't be at the Olympics without her support and encouragement.'
And looking further down the road, Irvine has already set his mind to what he will do after London. 'In the long term it’s cycling, cycling and more cycling. I just want to prove myself in the cycling world. Establish myself, if you like.'