Martyn Irvine: How he won Ireland's first gold in 117 years

 

Fans, fellow riders, flower girls and foreign coaches: they all wanted their photo taken with Martyn Irvine on Thursday night. Despite being out on his feet, track cycling's newest hero had to fight to leave the velodrome at Minsk Arena.

Hardly any of them would have known who he was only a few hours earlier but, by the end of a remarkable day in the Belarus capital, the affable Irvine had become the story of these 2013 World Championships. He also had two medals, a rainbow jersey and a beaming smile to show for his carefully budgeted trip to Eastern Europe.

Who was Harry Reynolds?

Born on 14 December 1874, he started cycling aged 18. Reynolds won the 1896 World Mile Championships in Copenhagen and took bronze a year later in Glasgow. He died aged 65 on 16 July 1940.

Legend has it that Reynolds raced the steam train from Balbriggan to Skerries for training. He also apparently rode up Barnageera Hill on a fixed wheel, backwards for a bet - which he won.

The Balbriggan Cycling Club hold a race in his name 'the Harry Reynolds Memorial' every year.

Irvine has had to wait a while for global fame but in the end it arrived quickly. At just past 8pm local time, the 27-year-old from Newtownards in Northern Ireland became the first Irishman since Harry Reynolds in 1897 to win a world track championships medal when he took silver in the individual pursuit.

Just 54 minutes later, and after collecting his medal, he got back on his bike to take a thrilling gold in the 15km scratch race.

His famous victory came via a nail-biting finish that had the crowd on their feet at the very end of a 60-lap race, but it almost did not happen at all.

Irvine had returned to his hotel after setting a new Irish record in qualifying for the gold medal final of the 4km individual pursuit earlier in the day and, on his way back to the velodrome, was contemplating pulling out of his second event of the day.

"I came back to the track on the same bus as him and he was umming and arring whether he was actually going to ride the scratch race," said former Olympic gold medallist and BBC Sport analyst Chris Boardman, who is staying in the same hotel as the Irish team.

"He knew it was straight after the award ceremony for the individual pursuit, but I bet he is glad he gave it a go now. He's a gutsy rider and he just went out there and made it happen.

"I don't think anyone in the arena saw that Australia's Luke Davison took bronze in the scratch race because everyone was focused on Martyn after he crossed the line. Everyone likes to see the underdog win and he did it in style today - everyone is really pleased for him."

Who is Martyn Irvine?

Born on 6 June 1985, he started competitive cycling aged 18. His first significant result was finishing runner-up in the 2007 Irish U23 road race and his best results before arriving in Minsk saw him win silver medals in the scratch race and individual pursuit at the UCI Track World Cup in Glasgow in November.

Irvine has signed for US road team UnitedHealthcare, who compete at continental level, for the 2013 season.

He had the option to represent Great Britain but chose to ride for Ireland.

There is one small part of the Minsk Arena that was particularly happy. Each team here has its own pen in the centre of the track where their mechanics work on bikes, coaches plan tactics and their riders warm up for their races.

The Irish team is a small one, so their space is in tiny in proportion to others - for example the 31-strong Russian contingent - but this year they are sharing with the United States, whose flag is draped alongside an Irish one on a dividing partition to mark their territory.

The reason for this arrangement is Andy Sparks, who has a role as Ireland's track coach as part of his work with several smaller cycling nations. He is also husband and coach to US rider Sarah Hammer.

The only American rider here, Hammer has been training with Sparks and the Irish team and the arrangement seems mutually beneficial - she won her fifth world individual pursuit title on Wednesday.

Hammer's success was much less of a shock than Irvine's of course. Although Sparks predicted a scratch race medal before these World Championships for a man who has won seven national titles on the road and track, seeing him win a world gold and silver medal - especially in the space of an hour - stands out as an incredible achievement on Ireland's meagre resources.

Cycling Ireland's head coach Brian Nugent told BBC Sport "We have no track training facility in Ireland and our budget is extremely small.

Irvine after his scratch race win

"I'm exhausted. It's awesome. I don't know what to say. There hasn't been a race I haven't committed to but I've been chipping away on a shoestring budget over the last couple of years. Once I went I didn't look back. Just full gas. I saw a shadow on my hip with two laps to go and I was expecting lots of riders to go past me. I can't wait to see the video of the race."

"Everyone has been asking the same question: 'How has Martyn done it with no velodrome in Ireland?'

"But he is a committed guy with a committed team and we have got a good coach in Andy who works with us in Majorca.

"What we do is base our best riders over there during the track season. Then they can do their work on the road and use the world championship track in Palma. Martyn is a road professional in the summer so he does all his track work in Palma. That is his level of commitment."

The hard work has paid off. Irvine was deflated after only managing 13th place in the omnium at the London Olympics after finishing seventh in the multi-discipline event at the 2012 World Championships. But continuing to plug away has brought its rewards, not least his own piece of history.

Those 54 minutes in Minsk will live long in the memory of anyone who witnessed them, and there are plenty of people with photos to prove they were there.