Talkingshop: Russell Downing – it’s a little bumpy


“It was a little bumpy” was how Russell Downing (Netapp-Endura) described his day on the cobbles preparing for a dream come true – racing Paris-Roubaix

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RELATED: Former Winner Stuart O’Grady previews Paris-Roubaix

After four wins in the British cobbled classic, the Lincoln GP, this Sunday Russell Downing faces the Hell of the North, Paris-Roubaix

After years trying to get a pro team to give him a chance, Russell Downing has seen his dreams come true with Netapp-Endura riding the two biggest cycling one days races there are, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Last weekend it was Tour of Flanders which he finished and this weekend, it’s Paris-Roubaix. After a day riding the cobbles with his Netapp-Endura teammates, Russell spoke to VeloUK about his chance to race these cycling monuments.


 Russell Downing. Photo: Joolze Dymond.

“It was a little bumpy” was how Russell described his day on cobbles which are the worst you’ll find in any bike race and unlike some races, there is no hiding place for them. No gutters, no riding on the grass or pavement; just one route across the top of the cobble stones.

In all there are 27 cobbled sectors, of which Russell did about ten on Thursday. To be helpful, ASO, the organisers, have given them a star rating with five stars being the longest and most difficult!


Picture from Movistar pro Alex Dowsett of the cobbles… now they look like nasty sons of bitches … 

The 27 cobbled sectors of Paris–Roubaix
27. Troisvilles (km 98.5 – 2,200 m) ***
26. Viesly (km 105 – 1,800 m) ***
25. Quiévy (km 107.5 – 3700 m) ****
24. Saint-Python (km 112.5 – 1,500 m) **
23. Vertain (km 120 – 2,300 m) ***
22. Verchain-Maugré (km 130 – 1,600 m) ***
21. Quérénaing – Maing (km 133 – 2,500 m) ***
20. Monchaux-sur-Ecaillon (km 136.5 – 1,600 m) ***
19. Haveluy (km 149.5 – 2,500 m) ****
18. Trouée d’Arenberg (km 158 – 2,400 m) *****
17. Wallers – Hélesmes, aka “Pont Gibus” (km 164 – 1,600 m) ***
16. Hornaing (km 170.5 – 3,700 m) *****
15. Warlaing – Brillon (km 178 – 2,400 m) ***
14. Tilloy – Sars-et-Rosières (km 181.5 – 2,400 m) ***
13. Beuvry-la-Forêt – Orchies (km 188 – 1,400m) ***
12. Orchies (km 193 – 1,700 m) ***
11. Auchy-lez-Orchies – Bersée (km 199 – 2,600 m) ***
10. Mons-en-Pévèle (km 205 – 3,000 m) *****
9. Mérignies – Avelin (km 211 – 700 m) **
8. Pont-Thibaut (km 214.5 – 1,400 m) ***
7. Templeuve – Moulin de Vertain (km 220.5 – 500 m) **
6. Cysoing – Bourghelles (km 227 – 1,300 m) ***
Bourghelles – Wannehain (km 229.5 – 1,100 m) ***
5. Camphin-en-Pévèle (km 234 – 1,800 m) ****
4. Le Carrefour de l’Arbre (km 236.5 – 2,100 m) *****
3. Gruson (km 239 – 1,100 m) **
2. Hem (km 246 – 1,400 m) **
1. Roubaix (km 256.5 – 300 m) *

Although he’s been based in Belgium before, this will be Russell’s first Paris-Roubaix and his time on the cobbles of the race which are like no other. “A lot of the cobbled sectors we rode today are longer than in other races, anything from one and half k to three and half k which was pretty bad and they are pretty rough!” he explained.


Photo: ASO (A Bade) – Quickstep’s leader for this years race, Sylvain Chavanel.

Asked if he’s done anything to his bike to cope with the battering both bike and rider get in such a race, Russell explained “we’re working on tyre pressures at the minute to see what works for different riders in the team and we also have the speedplay pedals without the body on them. I think we’re running 28 mm tyres because some of the gaps between the cobbles are quite big and if you ram a 25mm down there you will probably puncture. We’re looking at trying to eliminate as many possible problems as we can.”

Asked if the route is a ‘pan flat’ cobbled nightmare, Russell replied “no, it’s quite rolling and quite open. The cobbled sections are going to be quite windy and if it’s blowing like it was today, they’ll be even harder.”


The training ride on the cobbles was 90k and when asked if he’ll be making a note of the key sections to put on the stem of his bike, Russell replied, in a normal race, you can fit all the info you need on the stem but for Roubaix, it might need to go all the way along the top tube as well! “It was the same in Flanders on the weekend, I had a strip on the bars and then one on the top tube as well” Russell says.

In an interview with Eurosport, former winner Magnus Backstedt describes the battle for position as being absolutely nuts. “The risks that are being taken there are far greater than any Tour de France sprint” Magnus explained to Eurosport. “The same thing goes for the entry to the Forest of Arenberg. You have to be one of the first 10 riders to hit that and you have to take significant risks to get yourself there.”

When I put that to Russell, and how he found the fight for position in Flanders, he agreed, saying “if you’re not in the right position, it’s pretty hectic trying to do that. I’m expecting there will be echelons coming into the cobbled sections and if you’re not in the right position, you’ll have to sit tight and try and move up later.”

Asked if it’s a case of having to go into the red to get position in a race like that, Russell again agreed. “Definitely. I found once you were on the cobbles on the bergs in Flanders, that was the easy bit. It’s getting to the bottom of them in position which is hard and like a sprint.”


One has the feeling the ‘real Paris-Roubaix’ will be a lot different to the CiCLE Classic, Britain’s answer to the blue ribbon pro race in France. One hope its drier than last year too!

Form come good
Russell did not have a good Three Days of De Panne form wise and when asked if he was able to race himself into form for Flanders and now Roubaix he replied “I felt really good in Flanders whilst in DePanne, I didn’t feel great for two days. The problem there was a shoe plate had slipped. I felt like I had really good legs in Flanders and was pretty disappointed not to be in the front split.”

“When it split earlier, I was in the front group but then had to walk up the Koppenberg and wasn’t able to come back from that. That was Flanders over”.

Russell described the chaos on such a climb where the road is packed with riders, some riding, some not and he explained how he tried to balance from time to time and ride through gaps to keep the momentum going on the steepest section but when there was nowhere to go, it was feet out and having to walk up the climb.

Russell finished the race which was over 250k long and said that he felt that distance a little bit in his legs on Wednesday in Scheldeprijs but remembers feeling good at the 200k mark in Flanders and even over the last few laps of the finishing circuit, remembers the legs feeling okay so the extra distance of these Cycling Monuments holds no fears for him.

“Once it gets over 220k it’s a survival of the fittest and hopefully ‘ll survive” he says. “I know I have some gas in the tank for later on if I can stay in the race ad get the chance to use it.”

Very few will argue that when it comes to one day classics, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are probably at the top of the tree. Russell certainly seems to think so. “The atmosphere in Flanders was unbelievable. At the start, riding to sign on, the crowds in Bruges was unbelievable. The crowds on the climbs like the Oude Kwaremont was just so noisy and there were quite a few Brits out there too.”
Asked how he found the cobbles in Flanders and the recce of the Roubaix sectors, Russell said he felt good on the ones in Flanders but because he raced on Wednesday, the legs were a little tired to be zipping over the ones for Roubaix. Talking about sector 18, the iconic Forest of Arenberg (km 158 – 2,400 m) Russell said it is quite a different animal to cobbled sectors in other events.


Photo: ASO (A Bade)

“The Arenberg is pretty brutal and drags uphill and because you need to race over it at speed, riders will need to keep the power on all the way through.” Sounds simple except as Stuart O’Grady explains in his interview, “over the cobbles each rider that is in front of you must be looked at as an object. That rider can have a puncture or a crash or drop a water bottle or a chain and all of a sudden, this object is now an obstacle. Every water bottle that is dropped is like a grenade.”

Meanwhile, in his interview on Eurosport, Magnus explained that it’s the speed over the cobbles that is crucial “there’s a cut-off point in terms of speed, when if you ride above that speed you kind of skim across the surface of the stones more, which obviously hurts a lot less and doesn’t shake you about as much, but the moment you drop below that critical speed all of a sudden everything bounces a lot more it hurts a lot more and gradually you get slower and slower and there’s only so long you can hold for when that starts happening.”

On race day, Russell is expecting that with fresh legs and the atmosphere of half the planet by the roadside, he’ll have that extra few percent to race over the cobbles rather than bounce over them as many will do in training.

After going the distance in Flanders, Russell knows he has the legs to do the same in Roubaix. “I went well in Flanders and hopefully will have some luck in Roubaix. If you are in the right spot, right move, right breakaway, you have the same chance as anyone of getting a result and all I ask is to be in the right move and hopefully the legs will be good for me.”

Sounds easy but with 200 riders fighting to be in the first 10 at the start of the key sectors, one can only imagine the war that must be going on in the peloton to be in that top 10. One thing is for sure, Flanders, and Roubaix once it’s done, will be races that Russell will never forget.

“I’ve dreamt of these races my entire career and riding them certainly won’ ever be forgotten whatever happens. I’m in great shape so all we can hope for is some luck.”

Today, Friday, Russell and the team have another easy day doing around 90k getting to the race hotel ready for Sunday’s big day. Asked what happens after Roubaix, Russell says he’s not sure. It’s been a pretty intense few months with patches of big races with lots of hard training in between. For the South Yorkshire rider.

“We’ll see how I feel after Roubaix” he says. One of the races he could ride is Amstel Gold. “If I am riding well, that race can suit me but if I go to Amstel, it will probably be a supporting role for Vossy (Paul Voss) who is climbing well.”

Good luck to Russell for the race … we’ll be watching as will many more millions!


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