Chat with Russell Downing

A proven winner, four times no less at Lincoln, Russell Downing is not ready to retire and is still looking for that elusive contract to keep the fire he has for the sport going for at least another year – we chat

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Chat with Russell Downing

Russell Downing may not be the only star rider to be without a contract for 2019 but he is certainly the most experienced and that counts for a lot, whether he’s in a team of one of twenty one.

Russell giving it some stick in early season races and hoping to be doing the same next season

The first British individual winner for Team Sky, Russell has a million and one stories to tell from a career that is longer than my own in the sport in Britain. Quite something that. One of the most worrying things though I heard from Russell came at the end of my chat when he reeled off a list of names he’d been riding with that day, or talking to off the bike, and they were all out of contract or in the case of one, had just managed to grab a team place.

These are achievers in cycling, not also rans, and when they struggle to get a contract, it says a lot on how difficult being a pro bike rider is no matter how good you, are especially if you’re looking for a wage of some sort. It’s a lot easier of course if you ride for free or very little but not everyone can live in this world without some sort of income.

For Russell, yes he needs to be paid a wage but as he explained, he’s only trying to cover the bills. “A lot of people seem to think I want massive money to race my bike but all I want is enough to pay my bills and finish my career on a high. I’ll never fall out with the sport and I still love what it’s about.”

Russell is a legend in the sport. His achievements are long and illustrious and in 2017, even while leading out a teammate, he could podium in a prem. This season didn’t go so well because of various outside factors but a win and some good national A level performances in the latter part of the season showed he still has what it takes to deliver for a team. But still no contract is forthcoming.

What I am baffled by is I know what a great ambassador Russell l is for a sponsor. He knows the ropes. He can deliver on the road, he can deliver post and pre race. And he is a star name, a bloody legend for gods sake, so what sponsor would not want to have him as their cycling billboard?

Russell in the stripes of British champion – Criterium, Road Road, Madison and no doubt others!

Russell spoke to me post ride on a cold winter’s day and he may be the elder statesman in the peloton but by golly, he still has a passion for the sport few ever will and that counts for a lot. But when asked what’s the situation with getting a team, he says “I don’t have anything sorted yet. I have a few bits and bobs bubbling but nothing sorted. I will tee up with Deano (brother Dean), as his coaching is going really well so I’m going to try and get into that, doing race coach things with his clients”.

That work will also encompass mentoring these riders, passing on his experience of over 20 years in the peloton at the highest level. “That will help me put that passion back into the sport via these young riders” he adds.

That however, along with an ambassador role, are the only things that Russell is certain about. Racing in 2019 is still an unknown simply because he hasn’t been able to get a team or even a sponsor to get him on the road solo, something that would be a shrewd investment having a rider who can deliver without having to pay for a whole team.
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Russell explained he had his racing head back on and is keen to go but where he’s going he doesn’t know yet. “I’m going to put my head down until after Christmas and then see what is happening. It will come to a point when I have to make a decision on whether I can continue. I don’t want to retire from the sport yet but if it comes to that, then so be it. I still have the fire though and am training three, four or five hours a day and coming home feeling good again so I want to continue that for another year if I can. ”

Looking back at 2018, he explained “I got ill through numerous things and burnt myself out and when I realised what had happened, I had to take a step back to go forwards. I changed my diet to being plant based mainly, and feel really good for it. I’m healthy and everyone I see says to me ‘you’re looking lean’ and I reply I’m only eating plants now LoL …”

“I don’t want to retire after the year I had this year as it wasn’t as good as every other year has been before it although saying that, I did win a bike race (Out of the Saddle RR). Okay, it was a local race but it’s good to get the hands in the air especially against teams with a few riders in the race and I was going it alone.”

Asked how he felt his form was once he got over the burnout, Russell replied “Last year I was in really good shape, nice and happy within a good professional team (JLT Condor) where I could do my job and if you had some more gas, you could get a result as well. Towards the end of this year, I felt strong again like the previous year. Perhaps not as good but when your confidence gets a knock in the middle of the year, you struggle to get that back and I feel I am back to that level now and that is where I want to be for another year.”

“I feel I have a lot of experience to offer a team and I think there is a lot to be said having the experience of a rider like me in a team. If I was swinging at the back and not finishing races then they’d be like he’s done but I’m not doing that.”

2005 and a very special day for Russell as he wins the British Road Race championship at Ryedale

Russell’s experience in racing at the top level, not just in Britain but in the world having done races like the Giro and Paris Roubaix is second to none. Going back to 1996, he was winning national titles and in 1997 he was part of a team with Chris Walker, a close friend and mentor for Russell, along with Tom Barras and others. “That was the break through year for me. I was still working as an apprentice carpenter and halfway through that year, Chris convinced me I was good enough to be a bike rider and that was the start for me. I got second behind Chris on a stage in the Tour of Kingdom up in Scotland, and then second in the Under 23 nationals so it was a good year with a few other good results.”

“That got me into the top flight with team Brite and some really mega guys. It was also the first year of lottery funding and I applied to get on the world class performance plan (U23) and got accepted for that which gave me some financial help. It was sweet doing quite a few races with GB as well as Team Brite. We did the Worlds and Europeans and that year. 1998 saw me being a full time bike rider for the first time and I’ve been one ever since.”

Can he still win races I asked? “Yes, I can, given my day. My strength shows through in the big bike races (prems) and if you’re in the right spot, it gives you that chance to win the bike race and in prems, it’s a numbers game. When you know how to ride them, you can box smart and while I don’t think I would win week in, week out, I could pick a few off during the year.”

Asked if a sponsor came along wanting him to ride solo for them, would he be up for that? “Definitely. I have been thinking of that lately especially when I hear about riders going to such and such a team for free or for very little and I can’t afford to do that financially. I think my experience and ability also has a value too.”

And that’s the crux of the matter. Money. It is in such short supply, even with the teams that have managed to stay afloat, that any rider who needs a wage, may struggle as Russell is. But it needn’t be like that as Russell has show on and off the bike he is the consummate professional and an asset to any sponsor. Lets hope there is some money out there to keep him on the road because it is for sure, too soon for Russell to retire!

Good luck to Russell for 2019 …



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