An interview with British champion Russell Downing, June 23, 2006
In 2005, Russell Downing scored the biggest win of his career, winning the British road championship. With his new stripes on his back, the then 28 year-old Downing, who had sacrificed for almost a decade on a variety of teams, was ready for the big-time contracts to roll in. However, the ProTour teams did not beat a path to his door. Now with DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed, he is showing off his national champion strip well, winning races and looking for that break. Cyclingnews' Mark Zalewski sat down with Downing at the Tour de Beauce, where he won the fifth stage and was finalising his preparation for his British championship defence.
Russell Downing has had many ups and downs during his career. The downs came with multiple missed opportunities on professional teams that went under. "I've been pro before with Linda McCartney - rode in big races so I know what it is like," he told Cyclingnews. "I've had a few mishaps and bad luck with teams like iTeamNova that went under. That has set me back a few, but I moved on and carried on winning most years."
And an up (a really big UP) came last year when he won his national title. "[Wearing the jersey] has been good," said Downing. "A lot of hard work paid off during the last year. I had a really good season last year, but to win national's was even better. When I won that, the good race to do after that was the Tour of Britain. Wearing the jersey there felt pretty good."
"I've been full-time since I was 18... I am ready to move up whenever the call comes." - Downing is 28, but still ready
Surprisingly, his new jersey, combined with continued strong performances, did not lead to big team offers. And after racing for teams mostly in Great Britain, Downing signed with a Comtinental-level development team, DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed, that would operate in both the UK and Belgium, with the riders Anglo and Australian and the management Belgian. The team would help Downing step up further by racing more continental races with higher UCI ratings. [Cyclingnews.com is of course a sponsor of the team - Ed.]
While living in a house with nine riders after racing professionally for the better part of a decade and winning the elite championship of your country is not what Downing had in mind, he recognizes that this team is a better way for him to display his talents. "That's the thing, it's fine when you are 19 or 20," he said, "but when you are getting on a bit like me... I've been making sacrifices for years. Last year was MG-X Power-Recycling.co.uk, a Continental team. This year is the same level but much more in Europe, so a few more harder races which is good. That is definitely why I left the team, to do some bigger races.
"Obviously with the national stripes in Europe, it only takes one ride to get noticed. Last year I thought it would be a reward just winning the national title, and this year has still been good, but it's not the big time. I've been full-time since I was 18, and these races are very similar to those, so it's not like I can't do it. I am ready to move up whenever the call comes."
So this year Downing has had a tight focus on what he can do to make sure the call comes soon. Probably the biggest result of this focus came in May where he won the Triptyque Ardennais race, following in some rather promising cleat-steps. "I've been really concentrating on the results so far, which have been coming and been consistent all year. In Belgium I did a block that had some good results in 1.1 races. And then last month the Triptyque Ardennais; that was one of the best wins I ever had. I normally go well in stage races, but to win is a different story. I ended up taking it on the last day, which was the hardest day of the Tour. Twice up the climbs they do in Liege-Bastonge-Liege. I was very happy to win that.
"So back to what you said about teams looking at me, hopefully they will look there. Other guys that have won that, like Basso and Serge Baguet... so many good guys have won that."
All in the family
Racing has been in Downing's blood since birth - even racing with his brother Dean for many years including on the DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed team this year. "I started racing on the track when I was six or seven, and won my first race when I was seven. It was an under 14 race and handicapped. I was tiny at that age so it was like, 'Yeah, give the little guy a headstart.' And they never caught me. Then I went on to win that race for five more years. They didn't give me as much of a handicap then!"
Downing owes his love of cycling to his father who started he and his brother racing at that early age. "My family has always done cycling. Been doing it now for 20 years really, through the family. Dad, grandad, great grandparents. As soon as I was born I was at bike races. My dad was still racing then and races today." And careful not to cause any future family dinner issues, Downing responds delicately to the question of whether he can beat his father in a sprint. "Only just! He still goes well and races once or twice a week. He is getting on a bit now though!"
The track has also been a place where Russell has had some success, especially with his brother. "Two years ago I did the track world cup with my brother Dean. We got fourth at the Moscow race, just outside of a medal. We did get some contracts for that, being brothers and all. But I haven't done much on the track since then though. I switched mainly to road, won the national championships and felt that it was the route I wanted to go."
Taking a chance
Life has those moments that are clear forks in the road. For Downing, a fork came early when he was just 17. "I left school when I was 16 and was doing a bit of work as an apprentice," said Downing. "One day when I was 18 I had a fall-out with the boss. One day he was asking how the cycling is going and the next if I can work Saturdays. So I said I am going to have a go and take a chance. It's paid off. It's not a mega-living, but it's a good life.
"I was sort of semi-professional - doing a few days of work and riding for a team back home in England, one of the best teams, Invader-Undergear. Chris Walker, the British professional, was the team leader and lived by me, so that's the reason why I went there. I got second in the under-23 championships that year and second in another big race. The year after that was Team Brite, a big continental team with all of the best pros in England."
Every kid has someone they look up to, and in the sport they love to play, a famous player they attempt to emulate. For Downing, his youthful hero just happened to live down the road. "Definitely Chris Walker because he was a local guy," he said. "I went out training with him a lot when I was younger and he was at his peak then. He advised me a lot and still does now. He was a guy that convinced me I could do it when I was 17. Still now in the winter-time, when the contracts aren't coming in, he is telling me to keep doing it. He has been there, done that, and is by my side now."
Downing is happy with the way his new squad is developing. "The team is good," he said. "Early on in the season there have been people at different stages of fitness. The Commonwealth Games were tough on the team because we had three or four away in Australia competing, which interrupted the European program. So nothing was clicking at first, and we were doing hard races. But now the team is starting to gel together and win some races, which is what we are in Europe to do. And there is a lot of racing for us, especially in August and September.
"There are nine of us living in the same house. You may think 'oooh, that is not good.' But the thing is, everyone is grown-up enough to know that everyone needs their own space, so it is working. Of course I have a house and girlfriend back home, so it's not ideal, but it's the sacrifice you make to get a contract."
Another advantage of this team is that everyone speaks the same language as all of the riders are from Australia or Great Britain. "It definitely makes life easier," said Downing. "I've been with French and Italian teams and sometimes things get lost in translation. And a lot of the Aussie guys have worked with Gilbert for a while and understand how it works, so it's really good."
Since winning the national championship, one Downing's main goals has been his preparation for making a run at a repeat. And the last month has been 100 percent dedicated to this goal. "The stripes are what the last few weeks have all been about really with the nationals coming up," he said. "I've had some good training blocks and [Tour de Beauce] is like the final preparation."
With his performance at the Tour de Beauce, including a tricky sprint finish win and a strong race to the top of Quebec's highest paved road up to Mount Megantic, Downing looks to be on form for a repeat performance. "Mount Megantic wasn't my cup of tea," he said, "but I climbed good there with the leaders until the last 500 meters, so I was happy with that and it shows I am coming into a bit of form. When I have nothing, I cannot climb at all, and when I can do that, obviously something is going right. I am more of a fast finisher, so when it gets hilly I do well sprinting out of a group of fifty or sixty guys that have survived.
"After the championships, whatever happens, I will take a week at home easy, spend some time with the girlfriend! The second-half obviously has the Tour of Britain which is a big focus being my home tour, so hopefully a stage in that. Then the rest of August and September we have some big 1.1 and 1.2 races in Belgium and Holland."
One aspect of his year in the champion's stripes that was missing was a spot on the world championships squad, something he hopes will change this year. "Hopefully! I missed out on that one last year. I don't know what happened really. I think it was politics. I was there, had the results and I'm the national champion. My point wasn't that I was just the national champion, my point was that I had loads of other good rides as well, and I was the highest ranking UCI rider with 180 points last year. That is how they normally pick the team, but I think they were basing the team around Roger Hammond and I am a pretty similar rider to Roger, so they didn't want to take two winners I think. But it's water under the bridge now.
"And if I go this year I won't be going as team leader, I'll be a worker, which is what you do when you represent your country. Just a normal day at the office, you do what you are told to do."
When I sat down with Downing in his hotel room in Quebec, he was finishing up on his laptop, which was labelled 'Fonzy.'
"Ha, well that's been going in since 1998 now. It was a nickname that came up when I was younger and had a bit more hair - I would always have gel on and spike it up. Julian Wynn was out there and wrote it on my bike one day. He's a graphic designer so he's pretty good with a pen. He thought I would kick off from it, but I said it looked good and to do the other side! It's stuck ever since then."