Talkingshop: Dean Downing – the Crit season beckons

Twice the British Circuit race Champion (2002/2008), the important part of Dean Downing’s season will soon be upon him with the Halfords Tour Series on May 15. VeloUK talks to the Rotherham rider about 2012…

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It was at the start of the new millennium that the order at the top of crit racing came to change. Chris Walker retired after two crit titles in succession in 1999 and 1998 and then Rob Hayles won in 2000. ‘Killer’ Hayles then became one of the hitters in circuit racing in between winning World and Olympic medals on the track and in 2001, a new name on the podium for town centre racing appeared, Dean Downing.

Second behind Chris Newton in 2001 in the crit champs, Dean won in 2002 and since then has been more known for his prowess in circuit races despite wins also in Premier Calendar road races. His ability in circuit races was no doubt helped by the time he spent in Belgium during the early years of his career but since returning home to Britain, Dean has consistently been winning crits and road races for his various teams over the years. That consistency has made him a valued rider to have in a team.

Exeter, 2009, a moment that no-one will let Deano forget… it was supposed to be ‘look at me winning in my national champs jersey’, but instead it is now known as the nipple tweaking celebration …

Before 2009, the road season in Britain was dominated by Premier Calendar road races and the Elite Race Circuit Series and the major classics that existed within them. Races like the Lincoln Grand Prix for example and circuit races like the one at Otley or Beverley. Then, in 2009, the Halfords Tour Series came along with all its razzamatazz and that one series now provides a major focal point for teams and riders.

It’s now the only road series to be on television (ITV4) and that is massive draw for team sponsors and while there are other events that have the crowds, few can match the Halfords Tour Series for TV and the corporate ‘major event’ look that comes with the Halfords Tour Series events. That is my own opinion, based on having been part of the road season for 16 or so years now (1996) but I’m not alone!

“The Tour Series means everything” says Dean who won it with Rapha in 2011 when they dominated it in a similar way to how Endura are dominating racing right now. “The Tour Series revived my cycling career and definitely revived my enthusiasm for racing” Dean added.

Another of Dean’s wins in the Halfords Tour Series, this one at Colchester in 2011.

“You look at the crowds they get with each one having about 10,000. Colchester last year had up to 18,000 I read in the reports so when you have these enthusiasts all shouting for your team, it’s a great atmosphere … The races are also getting tougher to win and there are more people who can win them. We’ve seen a lot of foreign riders coming over now so it’s going to be bigger and better this year with 11 rounds. It’ll get me pumped for sure!”

I ask probably the most experienced circuit race rider in the country who will be the favourites and Dean replies “Endura Racing, no question. They have performed well in every race they have done this year. UK racing has gone up a notch this year and the events are not as easy to win anymore and Endura Racing have performed well in every race they have done.”.

But Dean sounds out a warning to Endura by saying crits are different to a 100 mile plus road race. Very different. Whilst Rapha appear to have dominated the series last year, even with their team of crit specialists they did struggle to boss the racing in the second half of the series. First, Endura Racing hit back with some wins then Motorpoint or Node4 as they are this season got a win in Canary Wharf.

That was the type of racing we expected at the start before the men in black shocked spectators and teams alike with their winning streak from round 1 onwards. Dempster in Durham (plus team), Clancy in Aberystwyth (plus team), Briggs in Peterborough (plus team), and Downing in Colchester (plus team)… Half the series gone and Rapha had won individually and the team award in every one of the first four rounds.

2008, Beverley (East Yorkshire) and Dean Downing is circuit race champion for the second time in his career. Otley in June is a big goal for Dean to make it three career wins.

Endura Racing hit back with wins in Stoke (Scott Thwaites) but Rapha won the team, Rob Partridge in Oldham with Endura getting the team award and then Ian Wilkinson in Woking with Endura Racing again the top team. The final round saw a third team, Motorpoint win individually and the team award.

It shows just how competitive the racing can be when the teams all get their act together and last year, it took half a series for that to happen. This year the series is longer, and most certainly tougher with the quite a few teams having strengthened their line ups or at least replaced the stars they lost to Endura Racing!

That includes Rapha Condor Sharp.

“We (Rapha) have a decent crit team this year with a few Aussies (Ben Grenda and Richard Lang) who have come in. We lost a few guys like Zak (Dempster, Endura Racing) and Dean (Windsor, also to Endura Racing) who were really good at crits so it’s going to be interesting. Last year we won the overall title and that was my goal of the year. This year, I’m not sure what the goal is, maybe to win two or three individual rounds and keep John Herety happy!”

And that will be a key thing about the series – will the top teams all go for being the best team which may make the racing a little negative as they try and keep races together for that all important bunch kick or will some of these top teams go first and foremost for the glory of an individual win which may change the style of racing completely.

Away from the Halfords Tour Series, Dean’s role in the team this year has changed from being one of a strong squad of winners to this year being a mentor to the young riders who have been brought into the team. It’s a role he says he’s enjoying and that was certainly the case when I joined the team last weekend to get some photos for a valued sponsor of VeloUK, Science in Sport.

While a very handy road race rider as well, there are some events just best forgotten like the one at Dengie where he got marooned in the peloton and was then sent off course. Game over.

“We haven’t structured any mentoring hours into the schedule” Dean explained. It’s all very informal where we’ll simply sit down before or after races and chat about things that the youngsters may not have heard about before.”

“For example, last night, we were talking about a ‘barrage’ within a race convoy. One of the youngsters didn’t know what one of those was because they may not see things like that in Junior races.”

“A barrage is something that happens when people are getting dropped from the peloton and the commissaires then stop them using the convoy to get back by creating a gap between the dropped riders and the peloton. So it’s about little technical regulations like that and we’re trying to teach them how to race better and how to survive because it’s a big step up.”

“I am enjoying it and it’s something else for me to concentrate on when at the races. When I get to my own races, I may not be mentoring as much as I’ll be concentrating on the racing.”

The Halfords Tour Series over six weeks is a big part of the season for riders and following that is the Elite Circuit Series and with others like the London Nocturne, the National Circuit Race Championship (Otley) and Leazes (Newcastle) as well as other less publicised circuit race events, the diet of racing for the top pros in this country is largely circuit races.

There are of course the six Premier Calendar events and many National B road races but with one or two exceptions, they don’t get the publicity and the crowds, the crits do.

Dean agrees that many of the riders who are not as good at crits as they are at road races aren’t happy with a season heavily loaded in favour of the circuit race, certainly at the top end of the sport. “I think last year, I had three months of really hard racing from the beginning of May to the end of July and the majority of that is crits. This year I’ll probably be doing twenty or so circuit races in that time.”

The start of the circuit race ‘season’ is a month away with the first of them the first round of the Halfords Tour Series in Kirkcaldy.

This is how Dean likes them, nice and tight, the crit at Stafford has just such a course…

Dean explained that during the winter in talks with his manager John Herety, Dean’s ‘job’ is to be in tip top condition for the start of the Halfords Tour Series. “It is a massive part of my season so these other races are preparation races in a way. That said, I feel if I don’t come into the season fit and ready to race then I won’t do well in these road races and if you don’t do well, you’re morale suffers.”

“We had a decent race at Dengie with Ben (Grenda) getting up there and that’s good that one of the new guys has got up there in the first Prem. My form is pretty good too. I came out of Taiwan really good and if I don’t do the right training now, I won’t be in the shape I need to be in when the circuit races come round. Hopefully, everything is going in the right direction…”

Even before the season started, the riders knew there were going to be periods in the racing calendar in Britain when there was going to be little racing and even when there is, the country does suffer from a lack of stage races. Hence why teams will plan into their schedule stage races leading up to a big event like the Tour Series to give them the endurance to get through six weeks of racing and travelling with very little time for anything else.

For Dean, his preparation race is the Tour of Korea and he and the team will be leaving for that on Thursday. “It’s eight days and will be a hard tour for me” Dean explains. “It finishes two weeks before the first of the Tour Series races start, so after the Tour of Korea, I’ll relax a lot, do bit of sprinting like a nutcase but not too much volume.”

The Halfords Tour Series starts on May 15 and there will be a launch for the series this week and more news on venues including an exciting one in the historic city of Oxford.

2012 Halfords Tour Series Calendar
Round 01 | Tuesday 15th May Kirkcaldy, Fife
Round 02 | Thursday 17th May Durham
Round 03 | Tuesday 22nd May TBA
Round 04 | Thursday 24th May Redditch
Round 05 | Friday 25th May Aberystwyth
Round 06 | Tuesday 29th May Peterborough
Round 07 | Thursday 31st May TBA
Round 08 | Tuesday 5th June Torquay, Devon
Round 09 | Thursday 7th June Colchester, Essex
Round 10 | Tuesday 12th June Woking, Surrey
Round 11 | Thursday 14th June TBA (Grand Final!)


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