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Russell Downing's long road to the top

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Chris Bevan | 22:37 UK time, Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Given how long he has waited for his moment in the sun, you could forgive Russell Downing if he pinches himself when he lines up with his Team Sky team-mates ahead of Saturday's team time-trial that starts this year's Giro D'Italia.

The Giro will be Downing's Grand Tour debut, at the grand old age of 32, and represents a "dream come true" for the amiable Yorkshireman. By the very nature of their sport, professional cyclists are used to slogging away for little or no reward, but Downing's road to the top of his sport has been particularly long and hard.

The current crop of talented young British riders, including the likes of Mark Cavendish and Downing's Sky team-mate Peter Kennaugh, have all come through British Cycling's Olympic Academy programme, something that did not exist when Downing was trying to make his name in the saddle.

Instead, he had to rely on his own personal support network and, crucially, his stubborn deternination to succeed. The latter has been apparent since he won his first race at the Clairville Velodrome in Middlesbrough at the age of seven.

Everything else has fallen by the wayside, from a promising football career - he was on the books of Rotherham United, his hometown team, until he was 16 - to his apprenticeship as a joiner with Kiveton Park Steelworks when he left school.

Downing enjoyed a successful season with Team Sky in 2010

Downing enjoyed a successful season with Team Sky in 2010. Photo: Getty

"It was a four-year apprenticeship but I left after about 18 months," Downing explained. "I was 17 and riding as a semi-pro. I used to race on Thursday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons, things like that. At first, my boss was really supportive but after a year or so he told me my cycling was getting in the way.

"He always used to ask me to do overtime when he knew I was training, and in the end I just quit. My dad, who was a bike rider, always wanted me to turn professional and he was really supportive about my decision. I was already riding in a team with Chris Walker, the 1991 Milk Race winner, and he was the one who convinced me I was good enough to be a pro. It went onwards and upwards from there."

Perhaps 'sideways' would be a better way of describing Downing's early career trajectory. Despite proving himself as one of the leading riders in domestic races and on the lower level Continental Tour, he constantly hit dead-ends in his attempts to crack the ProTour - the top-level professional scene in continental Europe.

Downing thought he had made it when he signed for the ill-fated Linda McCartney Racing team at the age of 19, but the outfit collapsed before he had even raced for them. His next big move, to I-Team Nova in 2003, also ended with his paymasters running out of money, and Downing briefly called it quits - returning to club cycling before turning his attention to the track.

His hiatus from the road did not last for long, however, and he marked his return style in 2005, winning the British road race title. Still, his big break was a long way off.

Another false start followed, with a French team which collapsed when their sponsor pulled out, but he persevered, and moved to Belgium for the 2006 season where he lived in a house with eight other riders - a far cry from the luxurious world he inhabits as part of Team Sky on their hi-tech team coach.

The only constant in those turbulent years were Downing's results, and he continued to impress when he joined the CandiTV-Marshalls Pasta team in 2008. He finished second in the Tour of Ireland in 2008, and went one better in 2009, with his victory helping him earn his big chance with Team Sky. It's fair to say the step-up has made a huge difference to his life.

Downing clinched overall victory in the 2009 Tour of Ireland

Downing clinched overall victory in the 2009 Tour of Ireland

I spoke to Downing a few weeks ago in the plush surroundings of Adidas's London showroom, at the launch of the new Team Sky and Team GB kit. He describes the Sky set-up as "a well-oiled machine" and compares his Pinarello Dogma bike to a top-of-the-range sportscar, but the biggest change has come away from his bike.

"I've been doing this for a living for 10 years now. Some years I would class myself as a pro and others an amateur," said Downing. "Obviously, sometimes it has been quite difficult - I would have good results but at the end of the season still not know who I would be racing for the following year.

"It is tough having to train and train over the winter when you don't know where you are going to end up. I have had some funding in the past - from the Dave Rayner Fund and also the Lottery back in 1998 - but normally during the winter I've had to find work and just do odd-jobs to get by. I've done all sorts.

"There were certain years where I had to come back to England after racing in Europe because teams had folded, and the stability has not been there in my life. So to sign for Sky, which is obviously such a big team, was a great achievement.

"It made the last decade really worth it and I think it has changed me as a person as well. I'm pretty relaxed now and I can get on with my bike riding without having to worry about the other things, and that sort of security is nice."

Not that Downing has rested on his laurels. He admits to being nervous at the start of last season but went on to enjoy some notable victories, including at the Tour de Wallonie.

Probably his only disappointment was failing to make the squad for any of the Grand Tours - the Giro, Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France. He knew he had to show he was more than just a sprinter to earn his place, and did exactly that.

"There were days last year where I did so much work for people and they were respectful for that. Then when the chances came for myself I went and took them, winning a stage of the Criterium International and think it proved to a lot of people at Sky that I could do a lot of jobs - either win races for other people by helping out and fetching bottles, but also on my day win for myself and Team Sky. I surprised a few people, and hopefully I can keep surprising them."

This year's Giro would be a good place to start. Does Downing harbour any ambitions of a stage win before the race finishes in Milan on 27 May? Of course he does.

"It's all a bit weird," he explained. "Last year some of the things I'd dreamt about came true, so who knows what will happen this time. Thomas Lofkvist is our team leader and our main guy for the General Classification so some days I will be helping him, but there are still a few days where, if I can get in a nice breakaway, I can have a go for a stage win. But I definitely won't be going there just to ride round in the grupetto - I don't do that in any race."

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