After not having raced for seven weeks, the fast man from Doncaster, who now rides for NetApp-Endura, showed that his passion for cycling is intact at the age of 35, even though his condition might not be at the same level as some time ago.
Downing was the first ever Briton to have won a race for Team Sky: stage 2 of the 2010 Criterium International, in Porto-Vecchio, Corsica, where the British squad launched its second successful Tour de France campaign a month and half ago.
“That was a good race,” Downing said in a conversation with Cyclingnews in Svolær, Norway.
“We also won the team time trial at the Tour of Qatar and I was part of that. But my first memory of racing for Team Sky was the criterium in Adelaide prior to the Tour Down Under. As we started our lead out train, everyone was looking at us and we delivered Greg Henderson and CJ Sutton for a 1-2. That was impressive.”
After more than ten years racing for teams short in budget (from Team Brite Voice in 1998 to CandiTV-Marshall Pasta RT in 2009) in Europe and the US, the popular British rider finally got his opportunity to race at the world’s highest level but his two-year contract was not extended despite his admirable efforts. He made the top 10 (8th) of stage 18 of the 2011 Giro d’Italia when Team Sky didn’t have much more to celebrate.
“I had a big crash and I felt so much pain but I didn’t want to quit”, he recalled. “I thought that I might not get another chance to ride a Grand Tour. When I didn’t get selected for the Tour of Britain, a race where I had twenty top-10 finishes before, I understood my situation. It was disappointing. I didn’t feature in a Tour de France winning team. I was left on my own.”
In a French team for example, such a rider would have had his contract extended with the aim of winning smaller races. “At Sky, they know what they want: riders to race like robots at the Tour de France”, Downing said.
That’s not me. I’ve been in and out of the system, from riding the World’s for GB to being left with no contract. But I’m really happy with my career. When I came back to the UK racing for Pinarello and winning a stage at the 2008 Tour of Ireland, I thought I was too old for the WorldTour and I had a fabulous first year with Sky. The second year was great as well, for different reasons, because I rode a Grand Tour. I’ve learnt so much in the last part of my career. I was pretty demoralized when I left Sky but then I had a great year with Endura. Helping JT [Jonathan Tiernan-Locke] winning Tour Med, Haut-Var and so on, I found myself as a bike rider again and I’m not thinking of hanging the wheels yet, but at Sky, I was just a number.”
“I’m still good friend with Chris Froome”, Downing continued. “We’ve roomed together and we’ve exchanged some messages during the Tour. It’s great to see where he’s come from. The stories he told me back in Africa are just better than those from the Tour de France. I’m still a fan of Team Sky.”