Alex Dowsett – A Tester’s Race Against Time

Gordon Wiseman talks to Alex Dowsett who’s road season is only just getting started after a crash in Belgium

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With less than 80 days to the start of the London Olympic Games, most competitors are now finalising their preparations in the pursuit of gold medal glory. But for Team Sky’s Alex Dowsett, after a near disastrous early season that road is only now really getting started.

The 23 year old broke his elbow in an accident at the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen in March and a subsequent post-operative infection has prevented him from racing since – just when he really needed to be sharpening his own form in an effort to be selected for one of the two places available to Team GB in the Olympic Time Trial.

Time off the bike at that stage of the season to get over such a break would have been bad enough – Team Sky’s doctor reckoned Alex would be off the bike for three weeks – but there was a bug on the plate screwed to the bone to help the healing process and that caused the post-operative infection and has delayed Dowsett’s return even further.

“I felt well enough after the race to drive back to the UK but during the four hour journey back to Essex the elbow started to feel steadily worse. When I got home my sister took to me A&E and the X-ray clearly showed a break”.

Alex is very philosophical about the accident saying that it was “bad luck. You have to deal with the cards you’re dealt with” and whilst most would agree with that truism, Alex seems to have been dealt with more than his fair share of dud cards.

“Because I have haemophilia things were always being to be more complicated and soon after being admitted to hospital I was transferred to the Royal London where they are used to treating my condition.

“A week after the operation I was feeling really bad and it was then that the infection was diagnosed. I spent another two weeks in hospital, had to go through another two operations and have been taking antibiotics ever since then, up to 14 tablets a day.

The plate was only removed last week, “another three days in hospital” Alex commented ruefully, but has since been feeling much better and has started to clock up the miles.

“I went out for a steady ride last Saturday but ended up riding for 5 hours and I did the same thing on the Sunday as well. I couldn’t train properly with the plate still in my arm – it was painful enough to start with – but I knew that further surgery would be necessary and I kept thinking that I was only training to be unfit. Now things are starting to feel good again, both on the bike and in my mind”.

Although Alex speaks about his haemophilia only complicating the break, he’s at pains to point out that “I’m first and foremost a haemophiliac and then I’m a pro bike rider. The haemophilia always complicates things but it’s something I’ve learned to live with”.

Alex acknowledges that many would think being a pro bike rider was not the obvious path to follow with such a condition but explains “I was always going to do something in sport. My parents were always concerned when I tried anything new – they made me wear a hard hat when I tried sailing! – and when I mentioned to my doctor about being bike rider he said he’d rather I played chess but accepted that we could manage the condition.

“My body doesn’t produce its own Factor 8”, an essential blood clotting protein, “but daily medication gets my own levels up to about 60% of those required. When I fell at West Flanders there was only a small graze and so I wasn’t particularly worried which is why I drove home that night. I know if it had been necessary I would have got proper treatment in Belgium but inside I just wanted to get home.

“In situations like that it’s the possibility of internal bleeding that’s the main worry but if things had been worse by the roadside there would always have been the back-up meds the team carry for me in the race cars”.

Ever aware of the problems other haemophiliacs have to go through, Alex works hard to support haemophilia charities and that is taken into account by Team Sky. To help raise awareness for last year’s World Haemophilia Day Alex and the squad riding at the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon wore red Oakley Jawbones.

The day was made all the better with Ben Swift winning the final stage of the race!

Such a lengthy break away from racing is not expected at this time of the season. Last year Dowsett lost two and a half weeks with an ankle injury and joked at the time “I’ll probably have four weeks off next time” but could never had expected – or hoped – that those words would prove to be prophetic.

So what has Alex been doing between the short rides he has been able to slot in between hospital visits?

“I’ve just bought my own place so that’s taken up a lot of my time getting that sorted after moving in. I’ve changed my agent and we’ve got some really exciting plans that we hope to announce soon. And I’ve been doing some work with the team’s sponsors, Gatorade and Shimano; that’s something I really enjoy doing”.

Alex has been testing new equipment for Shimano and earlier this week was with them for two days in Belgium.

“I would have been an engineer if I hadn’t become a professional bike rider. I suppose that’s in my blood” (Alex’ dad was a top saloon driver in the 80’s, racing Toyotas and coming second overall in the British Touring Car Championship in 1988).

“When we’ve been testing in wind tunnels the engineers have always been impressed with the ideas I contribute to the process and this testing with Shimano is along similar lines”.

Alex has also been watching some of the other racing that’s been taking place and commented about the exploits of his former team mate Taylor Phinney who he rode with in 2010 at Trek-LiveStrong, the U23 development squad.

“I’m really happy for Taylor and his result at the Giro” where the American won the opening time trial and wore the coveted maglia rosa for the first three days. “There have been big expectations on his shoulders since he signed pro forms and I think he’s had some low points but in the Prologue he destroyed them all.

“He’s great to watch and was always at the next level to the rest of us at Trek LiveStrong. But I know I can get to that level, it might just take me a little more time”.

Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Alex paused before candidly explaining how he expects to feel when he’s back in the bunch again. “I’ve had accidents before and have always come back without any concerns. This time I broke my elbow in an accident that wasn’t my fault and so it’ll certainly be interesting when I next have to go full gas on the cobbles. But at present I’d admit to being a little more cautious on right hand bends!”

But a return to racing is very much on the mind of this quickly developing rider. In his debut year as a professional Alex picked up a brace of professional wins with his first perhaps being a surprise win on the road – at last year’s Tour du Poitou-Charentes – rather than against the clock as he’d have expected.

The win in the time trial stage of last year’s Tour of Britain was his first wearing the colours of the National Time Trial champion, that championship win being one of two domestic wins. The other was back in June at the London Nocturne “something I’d like to repeat this year if I can but it clashes that weekend with the National 25. I’ve not ridden that since 2007, the year I left school so it’d be great to do it again. If my schedule allows.

Alex’ results in 2011 give him a lot to look forward to in 2012 despite his accident. “2011 was really a dream come true. Overall I had a solid year and rode very consistently. And I picked up some quality wins. This year will now have to follow the same pattern, recovery from injury and then build up to the summer”.

For the next few weeks Alex is the reserve rider for some of Sky’s next objectives such as the Tours of Norway and Luxembourg and the Bayern-Rundfahrt but expects to be back on the team sheet as a named rider in June. But he also has his eyes on another race after the Games.

“This year there’s the first running of the World Team Time trial championships. It’s being held the week before the Road champs and at Sky we can certainly put together a very strong team for that. It’d be great to be able to end the year the words “World Champion” after my name!”

But before that are the London Games are still very much at the forefront of Dowsett’s mind? “Definitely. I accept that my chances may have dropped a little but I know I can be fit enough on the day of the time trial and I want to get to that start ramp. As I’ve said, the accident wasn’t my fault so it won’t be for my lack of trying.

“Most importantly, I’m still part of the group Team GB will be working from and that gives me a lot of hope. I’ll have missed a lot of races and the chance to show myself unlike some of the other guys but I just want to grab this once in a lifetime opportunity. Even going as a reserve at least I’ll know I’ve have played my part”.

And whilst he may have recently told his local paper that, as he’s only young he can still look to 2016 or 2020, Alex believes – as does every potential medallist – that the London 2012 dream isn’t over until it’s over. He has a lot to overcome but there may still be the time he needs.

To finish off part of what Alex said earlier in the discussion; “First and foremost I’m a haemophiliac. Then I’m a pro bike rider. But I’m still a potential London 2012 Olympian”.

The Olympic dream still burns very bright.

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