Giro: Downing’s First Grand Tour

Latest: VeloUK talks to Rotherham’s Russell Downing on the eve of the Giro about the Team Time Trial work with Team Sky

Today, Wednesday (May 4th), Russell Downing of Team Sky will be in Italy and preparing for the biggest three weeks of his life as he puts the finishing touches to his preparations for the 2011 Tour of Italy. VeloUK caught up with him last Saturday when he was ripping it up with the Rotherham chain gang.

A moment in time during his 246 kilometre training ride last Saturday as he lines out the riders on the Rotherham chain gang.

One of only two Brits in the Team Sky line-up for the Giro, Russell has been named along with the Isle of Man’s Peter Kennaugh, Thomas Löfkvist,  Davide Appollonio, Michael Barry, Kjell Carlström, Dario Cioni, Lars-Petter Nordhaug and Morris Possoni.

“Pinning on the number for my first Grand Tour is going to be a nice feeling“ he says after being named in the squad for the race. “I have dreamt of riding a Grand Tour and it’s the Giro which I think is the nicest and prettiest of them.”

Russell has spent two weeks at home training hard for his first Grand Tour, the most he has spent at home since the start of the 2011 season. His last race was the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, where he was on the podium and helped fellow Rotherham rider Ben Swift to a stage win.

In that race, Russell and Swifty, who have both grown up with the Rotherham chain gang in South Yorkshire, were swapping roles, Russell leading Swifty out and vice versa. Talking about that final stage where Ben Swift won the stage, Russell explained “the last two guys in the train take all the flack because everyone else is trying to get in on it and force the last two guys off the train. So it was pretty hard. On the last day, I took Swifty in and I’m not sure where I dropped him off, 150 to go or something, and when I swung off, we were two lengths clear so straight way I knew he was going to win and that was a good feeling.”

Looking back at the other stages, Russell says “the first day, Swifty didn’t get over the climb so I  hit out with 300 to go and 50 metres from the line, they came round me. I was pretty peeved with that but it got better and I got a third, then Alex (Dowsett) was 5th in the TT, Dario was sixth on the mountain stage and then I took Swifty to the win so it was a brilliant tour.”

Russell in the heat of battle which there will be plenty of in the next three weeks in his first Grand Tour.

Russell spoke enthusiastically about how Team Sky had taken it to the other teams saying “we didn’t just ride it, we were splitting it in the crosswinds and really taking to the race to them.”

Up until that point in the season, Russell hadn’t really had time to do anything specific in his build-up to the Giro and post Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, it was rest and then big miles before resting again.

The Giro he hopes, will be the highlight of his year and after a career spent mostly in Britain or Belgium, he doesn’t mind admitting he’s a little nervous as well as excited about his first Grand Tour. This season is his second with Team Sky and he says its definitely a more relaxed atmosphere in year two.

“In my first year, I was nervous during the winter coming into the season thinking oh yeah, Sky is ProTour level. This year though, I have been able to relax through the winter and I was nearly at racing weight in January so I went into Qatar and Oman in good form.”

Thomas Löfkvist is the leader of the Sky outfit for the overall in Italy whilst Russell says he will be looking to get results in the sprints, especially on those stages where the sprinters don’t get over the climbs of which there are plenty in this race. To help him in those sprints according to the Team Sky website, is a rider who has finished third in the Baby Giro, Peter Kennaugh.

“Every day is going to be a hard day and it should suit me” says Downing. If I can get in some smaller groups or get up the road one day, who knows maybe I’ll get a stage win which sure would be nice. I can’t wait to test myself against the best in the business in the sprints, and hopefully a few of the punchier stages might suit me because I tend to do alright on those finishes with short, sharp climbs which might not ideally suit the pure sprinters in the bunch. It’s going to be a great three weeks.”

To prepare for the Giro, Russell has had a big week of miles and the day we spoke, it was almost 8 hours in the saddle for his 246 kilometres. In the middle of that long ride there was also a right old burn-up with the Rotherham chain gang in the lanes near Blythe. With him were other pros like his brother Dean, Graham Briggs, Kevin Dawson, Gunnar Groenlund, Dave Coulson and others.

We couldn’t have been further away from the atmosphere he will experience in the Giro and for Russell, the three week long race will be his biggest test yet. He’s won smaller stage races like the Tour of Wallonie and Tour of Ireland and shown he can sprint with the best but in the Tour of Italy, he’ll be facing the likes of Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi, Francesco Chichi , Graeme Brown, Julian Dean and another sprinter who had a podium last year and is also a regular on the Rotherham chain gang, Adam Blythe.

The first big race for him and the team though is the Team Time Trial, a great spectacle and a chance for Team Sky to take the Pink jersey of race leader.  Russell’s aim is to go into that race fresh and so after the big day of kilometres last Saturday, it was time to bank them and rest up.

“At the end of today, I’ll have done 33 hours in six days which isn‘t bad” he says . “Some of them have been flat whilst others rolling and I‘ve just done two days back to back with Dean in the peaks.”

Russell says that he sets his training programme after talks with the team. “I have worked with Rod (Ellingworth) for the last couple of years  and when I have objectives, he’ll write me a bit of a programme and I’ll take things from it. Some days if I’m a bit bored just riding the bike and I want some specific drills, I’ll take some of Rod’s ideas.”

Russell’s training partner for his pre-Giro training camp has been brother Dean Downing.

Asked has he done anything to help him in a race that is known for being a mountainous event, Russell replied, “the hills around here are nothing compared to the mountains we’ll race up so not really. If you were going there to win in the mountains, you’d have to go  and train in the mountains but for myself, I just want to get through them in the best shape and target the other days.”

“I can climb okay but I certainly won’t be winning any mountain stages! I’m quite looking forward to being in the gruppetto with Blythe and Cav and having a laugh.”

Speaking of having a laugh, when I asked whether he’s done any homework on the race, he replied “when I was in Castilla, I picked up Swifty’s ProCycling and read it for five minutes and then asked Swifty to take back off me because I didn’t want to read it about it yet! It was looking too hard!”

When VeloUK and Russell had spoken, Italy was still many days away but by the time this is published on VeloUK, Russell will be in Italy and out on his Pinarello Time Trial bike and doing through and off in the Team Time Trial drills with two more planned for the Thursday. The first stage in the Grio will be the first time Russell has done a Team Time Trial on a TT bike as the others have been on road bikes.

“It will be something else” he says of that race. “We did a bit of team time trialling work in Majorca pre-season like one day we did three hours with 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off  which was a get to know everyone and see how every one is.”

Guiding Russell and the team will be a director sportif that Russell has raced for since 1999 on and off, Sean Yates. According to Russell, Sean has likened him to a wine that gets better with age and that is certainly true when those who know Russell compare him over the last few years where he dominated in Britain to the early days when he wasn‘t winning as regularly.

“This is going to be one of the hardest Grand Tours ever” Yates explains on the Team Sky website. “It will be a great experience for these guys and definitely make them stronger as a result. We’ve picked a good group of riders, with a nice blend of youth and experience, and we know they will get stuck in and fight for each other.

“Russell’s first Grand Tour has come late in his career but he’s proven again this year that he can deliver results and he deserves his place in the team. He hasn’t had the breaks a lot of other riders have but has stuck at it, won races, and has got his chance now. He’ll be coming up against the best in the business during those sprint stages but you can never say never with Russell and if he won a stage it would be unreal.”

I think I join everyone in wishing ‘Fonzy’ all the best for the Giro!

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