Russell Downing Interview: Sky’s end, and looking for a new team
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Friday, October 14, 2011

Russell Downing Interview: Sky’s end, and looking for a new team

by Shane Stokes at 2:31 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews
Former British road race champion looking for a new squad for 2012

Russell DowningWinner of the Tour of Ireland in 2009 and Team Sky’s first-ever British winner during its debut season of 2010, Russell Downing is at a crossroads in his career and uncertain about the future.

The Briton officially confirmed this week that there wouldn’t be a place for him with the British WorldTour team in 2012, bringing to an end his two years there and leaving him with a big search on his hands.

At 33 years of age, Downing knows that there are younger riders than him also chasing slots. However he believes that he still has a lot to show, and that his performances over the past two seasons illustrate to teams that he has what it takes to be a solid professional.

“There are talks going on, but nothing going anywhere at the minute,” he revealed to VeloNation this week, speaking on the situation for 2012. “I think a lot of teams are just shuffling the last few places. It is a quite a hard year, to be honest, with HTC stopping, Leopard Trek merging and all of that.

“It is going to be a tough old time, but I will keep my fingers crossed for a couple of weeks and see if something comes on the WorldTour scene.”

Downing’s first season with Sky brought several impressive results, including three victories. The first came on stage two of the Critérium International and, as stated above, this was the first of the new team’s wins obtained by a British rider.

It was also significant as it was in an ASO-ran race; even though the squad had a ProTeam licence then and thus a secured invite to the Tour de France, performing in front of ASO is always something that teams like to achieve.

Wins two and three came in July of last year when he took a stage plus the final overall classification in the Tour de Wallonie. He was also second on a stage of the Ster Elektrotoer and fourth overall in the Tour de Picardie.

As Downing underlines, most of his time at the team have been riding for others, and so the results in themselves don’t reflect the full extent of his contributions. But he’s convinced his showings over the past two seasons illustrate that he should have a future in the sport.

“I think I proved to myself and to a lot of people that I can do it. That is where I should have been riding for years, but never got the chance,” he said, referring to many seasons spent racing on the British scene rather than in Europe. “The last two years have been great, but now I’m not sure what is happening. Racing only finished last week and it is all a bit like, woah, what’s next?”

Russell DowningHis task would undoubtedly be at bit easier if he had a win to his credit this season. He’s been riding well in races, but his closest brush with the top step of the podium is the second place on a stage of the Vuelta a Murcia, plus third on a stage of the Vuelta Castilla y Leon. Two weeks ago, he was also fifth and eight on stages of the Circuit Franco Belge.

“I spent more time riding for others this year,” he said, “definitely more riding for others. I think last year I got a couple of opportunities and I took them. This year I haven’t had as many of those opportunities, really. A lot of the time I have sat on the front or in early moves, and obviously in the Giro I was leading out for Appo [Davide Appollonio], dropping him into the leadout trains.”

Of late he’s tried to do something with the form he has. “Last week I ran eighth [in the Circuit Franco Belge]. We were all trying to get in breaks and I eventually got into the move. It stuck, but then it went over a bloody ten kilometre climb! There were a few good climbers in that break and I did good to climb it in the position I did.

“Anyway, yeah, a lot of the year I have sacrificed my chance for others. That is pro bike racing...”

Searching for a slot:

Downing said that talks are ongoing with big squads, but that he’s not sure how things will work out. “There are various teams that I am talking to. There’s nothing really I can talk about at the minute, but everything is ongoing. But I’d say it is going to be a hard year to stay where I am staying, at WorldTour level, with what is going on [with teams stopping]. Hopefully people have seen the last two years and see what I can do. When given the chance to ride for myself, I can get on with it. If not, I am willing to sacrifice my ride for others.”

If he doesn’t secure something this month, he said that he would consider his options and work out what to do next. “I really want to put a lot of work into staying WorldTour. If that doesn’t happen, I am going to have to have a serious rethink to decide where I want to go with my career,” he said. “It would obviously be quite a hard decision to say, right, WorldTour is not happening and to come back down a step. But there are teams out there that I could probably work well with and maybe have a future with.”

For now, though, he isn’t thinking too much about the What Ifs. He’ll do that if something isn’t in place in a fortnight or so; until then, he wants to keep his mind open and hope that something will arrive. “I have not really thought about going back to the UK,” he said, when asked if he’d consider racing for a domestic team for a season, then try to step up again. “When you have set your sights on something like I have done for years and it eventually happens [turning pro], you don’t want to move from that.

Russell Downing“I might end up riding for a smaller team outside the WorldTour,” he admitted. “There are a lot of possibilities at the minute, but nothing major. I was talking with United Healthcare but things didn’t move on and I think they are full now. A lot of teams have said that they were interested, but also that they hadn’t got space left…it’s tough.”

While Downing is at an age when some pros are thinking about what they will do after their careers are over, he doesn’t see himself as being in the same position at all. That’s not a surprise; he reached the WorldTour level quite late, and has raced just two years at the most intensive level. Because of that he feels that physically and mentally he has a lot left to give.

He’s also had a relatively ‘light’ overall career programme compared to many of his peers. This year was the first time he ever rode a Grand Tour, and so his situation is quite different to others his age who may have done ten or more and are feeling a bit jaded.

Speaking of that debut Grand Tour, his Giro d’Italia participation is one of the achievements he takes most satisfaction from. “This year, finishing the Giro was obviously pretty good, to say the least,” he said, when asked about his highlights with Sky. “The route was crazy hard and I battled through it. Finally with three days to go I crashed and broke my ribs…I really had to do more battling to get to the end of the race.

“But it was a great experience to do; it is things like that which proved to myself and proved to others that I can ride one day races, I can ride five day races and I can ride three week Tours. I am pretty versatile. I am not the biggest engine in the world but I can get by, do the job and come up with the goods sometimes.”

With that in mind, he’ll keep plugging away and hope for good news. Whatever happens, though, he’s not going to retire. “Things might be all up in the air and, at the minute, emotions are a bit mixed to be honest,” he said. “The one thing I know though is that I want to continue riding my bike for a good few years yet.”


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