Russell Downing rode his first race when he was seven years-old; he’s now 33 and the British pro racing just wouldn’t be the same without him.
Some times when you interview a rider you have to work hard to find decent palmarés for the introduction – but not with Downing.
The problem is deciding what to leave out; pages could be dedicated to his wins and placings.
Track, road races, criteriums, stage races; they’re all there – from Langkawi to Canada and from Australia to Norway.
It was 1995 when riding for the J.E James Racing Team than he won the British schoolboy points and sprint championships, with the National Junior Points Title coming in 1997 with Team Invader/Undergear.
He wasted no time in turning pro – the team was the immaculately presented but short-lived Brite Voice in 1998.
The following year saw him with the ‘team that never was’, Linda McCartney.
He was third in the National road race and won the Havant International.
A year later and he was with Miche Penna winning the GP Essex.
For 2001 he was back with McCartney and spent a spell with French team UVCA Troyes.
He took ten wins including a stage in the Ronde de l’Oise – and a whole raft of top ten placings.
Unfortunately, 2002 saw another vaporous team for the man from Rotherham – iTeam Nova.
But there was a stage win in the Brandenburg Rundfahrt, wins in Belgium and the UK, including the National 20 kilometres on the track.
It was Team Life Repair for 2003 and British titles in the points, criterium and madison – with brother, Dean.
Not to mention solid rides all over Europe and a criterium win in Perth, Western Australia.
Recycling.co.uk/MG-Xpower was home for 2004 with wins in the Havant, East Midlands Classic, three stages and the GC in the Ras Mumham in Ireland a stage in the tough Circuit des Mines in France.
The track wasn’t neglected, with a World Cup team pursuit win in Sydney representing Great Britain.
For 2005 he stayed with Recycling and was rampant – winning the British road race title, the Havant, the Lincoln, a stage in Girvan, three stages in the Ruban Granitier Breton and one in the Giro del Capo in South Africa.
DFL – Cycling News – Litespeed was the name on the jersey for 2006 with an excellent win in the Triptyque Ardennaise, kermis wins in Belgium, a stage win in the Tour de Beauce in Canada and an exotic addition to the palmares in the shape of the Bermuda GP.
The United States was supposed to be home for 2007 with Team Healthnet- Maxxis; visa hassles meant slim US palmares but there was the Richmond and Beaumont in the UK and another win in Bermuda.
Phil Griffiths’ Pinarello RT-Candi.tv was a good move for 2008 with Downing rampaging to the Premier Calendar title, including the Girvan, Reservoir, Richmond, Lincoln and East Yorkshire Classic.
There was also a stage and second on GC in the Tour of Ireland against the very best opposition.
Staying with Griffiths for 2009 – with the team now adding Marshalls Pasta as a sponsor – the Premier Calendar again went his way, as did the national criterium title.
But the big result was taking the UCI Tour of Ireland, ahead of the likes of Breschel and Kolobnev.
The Sky was the limit for 2010 and with wins in the Tour of Qatar TTT, a stage win in the Criterium International, a stage in the Tour de la Region Wallonne and the GC in the same race his Pro Tour debut was of the highest order.
But 2011 wasn’t of the same level – despite a top 20 in Het Nieuwsblad and a finish in a horrendously mountainous Giro – Downing’s opportunities were few, more often put in the service of other riders.
There was no renewal with Team Sky for 2102.
But not for the first time, Downing reinvented himself, this time with Scottish squad, Endura.
The wins have been coming thick and fast; the Soens, GP Lillers, a stage in the Circuit of the Ardennes, the Lincoln (for a record fourth time) – and most recently, a stage in the Tour of Norway leaving the likes of Simon Clarke, Tosh Van Der Sande and Edvald Boasson Hagen in his wash.
With the Norwegian win perhaps getting lost among the drama and glitz of the Giro, VeloVeritas thought a chat with Mr. Downing would be timely.
How many seasons, Russell?
“Too many! I won my first race at seven and I’m 33 now.
“My dad was a grass track racer at carnivals and I used to go along with him – I rode an under 14 handicap race and won it.”
Who influenced you back in your formative years?
“Chris Walker, who won the Milk Race and was a big force in the TV criteriums – that boy had so much class.
“He convinced me back in ‘96/97 that I could make it as a full time bike rider – I owe a lot to him.
“I still keep in touch, his kids have started to ride the bike and I help them where I can.”
“I think the lottery funding came in that year, but I’d signed with Brite.
“It was another team where the sponsor jumped ship. The original sponsor was to be Virgin but there was a guy on the Brite board of directors who was into cycling – but he left and that was the end of it.
“Most of the riders went to McCartney.”
McCartney – not the best set up?
“It was a farce, but despite the fact that money was tight, we got some great results. The thing with me is that I love riding the bike – I’d still do it even if I wasn’t a pro.
“That’s what’s kept me going, despite the knocks with team let downs.
“In 2002 when iTeam Nova collapsed I was living in Belgium and ready to pack it in. I came home and was struggling to find motivation.
“I took a job in a motorbike shop and was out partying every night. My brother took me along to see the Lincoln Grand Prix.
“Guys were coming up to me and asking how I was doing, I said that ‘I was enjoying life’ – but everyone knew that I wasn’t, really.
“The Cycling Weekly did a little interview with me that day; they said that Mark Lovatt was a likely winner of the Lincoln.
“I replied that if Mark Lovatt could win the Lincoln, then so could I!”
Is that why the race means so much to you?
“One of the reasons, I’d lost interest but got all the nonsense out of my system; going to Lincoln got me back on the bike.
“But it’s only 40 miles from my home, the crowds and atmosphere are terrific and it’s just a great race to win.”
Do you have an agent?
“I work with Paul de Geyter.
“That’s one thing I regret about my early career, being ‘too busy’ to get organised with representation.
“You need someone in your corner, making calls on your behalf.
“I’m not a great negotiator myself so I need someone to handle that aspect.”
Your palmares are really broad; I didn’t realise you have a team pursuit World Cup to your credit.
“I’m not sure how that came about! I was at the World Cup in Sydney to ride the madison, scratch and points.
“But I was drafted into the squad and we trained for a week, I’m too small to be a team pursuiter, really – but we won it.
“The road has always been where my passion is.
“But Dean and I qualified GB for the Olympic madison in 2004 – then we didn’t get the ride.”
What’s your best win?
“I’m not sure, maybe my stage win in the Criterium International – that was a good result.
“It was my first Pro Tour win and the first win for a British rider on Sky.
“But the Tour of Ireland win was very satisfying, particularly because I’d finished second the year before.
“On the last stage they were attacking me left, right and centre – but I turned the tables and rode away from them.
“I have good memories of that race.”
You beat some handy boys to win that stage in Norway.
“I had bad luck on a couple of stages; I was knocked off the road in one and punctured in another.
“On one of those stages I won the sprint from the second group so I knew I had the legs and the form was coming. I knew the finish where I won and got a really good lead out from Zak Dempster.
“It was a great victory for the team – beating those World Tour teams.”
You were always a man for ‘mega miles’ – is that still the case?
“Nothing’s changed about my training in the last 10 years – I just really enjoy riding my bike!”
“The first year was great, I got chances; but in the second year I was always riding for other people.
“After the Giro I didn’t have much of a programme, the writing was on the wall – they knew Cav was coming.
“I had a job to do in every race – lead out or go in the early break or sit on the front for five hours!
“I did everything that was ever asked of me with Sky; but it was all pretty vague when they let me go.
“But year one was a great experience, I was where I wanted to be – and winning.”
The Giro must have been a great experience.
“I’ve dreamt of riding it since I was a kid, probably more so than the Tour.
“The colour, the passion – and it was a very hard percorso in 2011; maybe one of the hardest Grand Tours in recent years.
“That last week in the mountains was very tough and it was a real achievement to finish.”
“I’ve always been friends with Brian Smith.
“He spoke to me last year, but I was honest with him and said that I’d like to stay World Tour, if I could.
“We had various things on the table, but I set myself a date and if nothing was signed by then I’d accept his offer and get on with preparing for 2012.
“That’s how it went; we hadn’t anything firm sorted by my date, so we agreed terms with Endura.
“It’s been a great move, 2011 wasn’t great, I enjoy winning and I’m back doing that with a good bunch of lads. I’m the selected rider where the race suits me; but I’m more than happy to ride for team mates when it’s their day.”
What has Russell Downing still to win?
“The Tour de France! I have a taste for the big races, now.
“I think that when I’m on top form, a semi-Classic win isn’t beyond me.
“It’ll depend on what happens with the team – we hope to move up to Pro Continental for 2013.
“We have had the success and we’re trying to attract an additional sponsor – we’ll have to see how it goes.
“I think I still have five or six good years in me, I’m not a knackered thirty three-year old who’s ridden a load of Grand Tours – I’m fresh in the legs, body and head.”
And if you had your career over?
“I don’t think I made the wrong