Cycling Legends interviews are sponsored by:
Back With the Old Firm
Russell Downing takes on a new racing and ambassador role with a long-term benefactor to some of the best and brightest in British cycling
Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Andy Jones
Let’s go back ten years to the final stage of the 2009 Tour of Ireland. It’s near the end and the yellow jersey, a rider from a British-based team, has no team-mates left in the front group and is surrounded by World Tour riders. He’s led the race since stage one. His team, although out-powered at this level on paper, have ridden out of their socks to help, but now it’s just him, and there's a lot more at stake than a race victory.
The man in yellow is Russell Downing and he’s in line for a place in the British team set to take on the world from 2010, Team Sky. However, Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford is still not 100 percent convinced. Through no fault of his own Downing is just the wrong side of Brailsford’s age v potential curve.
He’s talented enough to be in a World Tour team, but a series of set-backs and bad luck saw chances and years slip by. Downing is slightly older than he should be to step up now, and that's the nagging doubt in Brailsford’s mind. Downing is about to put those doubts away.
The tough Irish roads and a succession of hard climbs have whittled down the lead group. The two big names in the race, Lance Armstrong and Mark Cavendish dropped out along the way. Team Saxo Bank and BMC Racing have multiple riders in the top-ten overall, and are well represented in the lead group, but every one of their attacks is countered by Downing.
Finally he puts the hammer down and race victory, and Downing’s immediate future, are beyond doubt. Only Lars-Peter Nordhaug can stay with him, and he takes the stage win at the top of St Patrick’s Hill in Cork. Downing is given the same time as the Norwegian, and since the pair get 33 seconds on the next rider, Matti Breschel of Saxo Bank, they take the first two places overall.
Downing is the winner by 23 seconds from Nordhaug. His Team Sky place is settled, and a good job it was too. In 2010 Downing provides some of the rare highlights in a difficult first season for Sky, winning the 2.HC Tour de Wallonie overall and stage two of the Criterium International.
His time in Team Sky was a career highlight, Downing got to race at the level he always wanted to. He fulfilled a dream of riding a Grand Tour when, despite a terrible crash, he battled through to finish the Giro d’Italia in 2011, and in subsequent years rode classics like Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Amstel Gold Race with the Net App-Endura and Cult Racing teams.
The only thing that didn’t happen that Downing would have liked to happen was the man who backed his 2009 team, Candi TV-Marshall’s Pasta, and who had supported him personally at various stages through his career, didn’t get the publicity from the Tour of Ireland he should have. That is about to change.
The backer is Phil Griffiths, and he’s been a mainstay of British elite racing, having sponsored teams and individuals over many years through the various brands he distributes. In 2019 Downing and Griffiths are back together in a project called Giordana Racing.
“It’s a one-man outfit, I’ll be racing but I’ll also be a brand ambassador for Giordana clothing, Rudy Project eyewear and helmets, and Corima wheels. Phil called me a couple of weeks ago. He knew I wanted to race for one more year. He’s helped me out a lot in the past, so he just asked me what did I want, and we agreed a deal over the phone.
“Within a couple of days I was down at Phil’s company, Yellow Ltd to pick up my bike and get fully kitted out with Giordana stuff, and now I’m really looking forward to the year. I’m dead keen, and I'm feeling better on the bike than I’ve felt for a while. It’s going to be fun not just chasing the results. I’ll do a few sportives as well as races. It’s great to be back with Phil after ten years too. It feels like being back in a family,” Downing told me when he announced the news.
But this isn’t just two old friends re-uniting for the craic, it’s the start of a new page in Russell Downing’s career. A recent conversion to a plant-based diet, which helped him recover quickly from a debilitating attack of shingles in 2018, put Downing in touch with Rawvelo, a manufacturer of energy bars and gels using only natural products. “I’m working with the guys there now, doing an ambassador role with them. We did a nutrition event at Look Mum No Hands last week, and I’ll do others this year.
“My other big change in 2019 is working with my brother Dean in his coaching business, Downing Cycling. I’ll be there as a mentor for anyone who Dean coaches and who wants to use me. I think I’ve got a lot to offer younger or less experienced riders when it comes to tactics, or just finding their way around.
“I’m really looking forward to the year now. I still want to do some big races, those that would have been in the Premier Calendar, or whatever they are calling it now, but I want to do some sportives. It will be a year or really enjoying the bike, plus getting to talk to people about and working with the various brands I’m representing. It’s really put a spring back into me,” he says.
It will be a different year for Downing, a transition year in many respects between racer and product developer and marketing, but it won’t mean he’s a pushover in races. 2018 was frustrating for a number of reasons, and the memory of it isn’t what Downing wants to leave as his last as a pro rider. He’s training as hard as ever and looks sharp. The appetite for putting his hands in the air hasn’t left him either.