It seems that every article and interview about champion cyclist Alex Dowsett spends as much time focusing on his haemophilia as on his sport and achievements. One might expect him to find that a little tiresome, but Alex himself is constantly working to raise awareness of the condition. Anyway, it is surely impossible to entirely separate his sporting achievements from the factor that has made them such an extraordinary triumph of determination over general expectation. How many regular cyclists escape cuts and bruises in the course of the activity? Very few, one suspects.
So, for a young man to set his sights on a career in competitive bike riding while suffering from a condition that renders minor injury potentially very serious, comes as a surprise. Or, at least, it used to, before Alex Dowsett did it in spectacular fashion.
When our team visited Alex to deliver his new DOW 553T personal registration, our interviewer confessed that cycling was a sport about which she knew little, and asked Alex to summarise how it all works.
“Well, it’s time trials and road racing. I used to race on the velodrome as well, the indoor cycling. I do a little bit of that in the winter but my focus is road and time trial now. The season generally runs from February all the way through to October, so it’s a long old season. I guess, on average, I’ll be racing for a week and a half every month and races can range from one day up to a three week grand tour."
“I race for Movistar, which is a Spanish team, as well as the British squad. It’s not dissimilar to football in that there’s the top 18 teams which is like your… whatever it’s called now… your Premier League, and then there’s your division one, division two teams. For the main races, all the things like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, all the Premier League teams will be there and the division one teams can have like a guest entry. So, Movistar, who I’m with, has won for the last two years and been ranked number one team, so we’re the best team there is in the world at the moment, which is good.”
Cycling is unusual in the way it has both team and individual aspects.
“It’s a massive team sport but, ultimately, one person wins. I mean, we do collect points as a team and there’s like a team war, but the real focus is on individual riders winning individual races. When we go to a race you’ll have one rider, or maybe two, that’s designated as the guy to win and the rest of us will be helping and that, a lot of the time, comes down to slipstreaming. If you’re riding along at 25mph on your own, and you’re having to push your own air, then it’s quite hard. If you’ve got your teammate in front of you it becomes 30% easier, so that’s sort of where the team role mostly comes in."
“We’ve got 28 in our team. That’s because we can run maybe three race programmes at the same time. I’ve just come back from the Tour of Britain and we had six of us on that race and then another nine guys were racing in the Tour of Spain. A separate team went off to Canada to race there as well.”
So, if just one or two riders are selected to give the team a chance to win, who makes the decision regarding who gets chosen?
“The boss! We do have a little say; we give our input about what we’d like to do, and they take that into consideration, but it’s ultimately the boss who makes the decision."
“Different riders will suit different races. Like the flatter races are more my thing because I’m a bit heavier, and the mountain races are more suited to the guys who are around the 50-60 kilo mark. So everyone gets their own opportunities and races that suit them."
“During a week long race, one of the individual stages might be a time trial. Then that does become an individual sport because it’s just you against the clock: completely different bikes, helmets, kit, everything. Basically, you get a set distance of anything from two miles up to 30 miles normally. Whoever can cover that distance in the least amount of time wins. That’s what I won the Commonwealth gold for.”
The mention of gold reminds us just how far Alex has progressed in his sport. How did he first come to take up cycling?
“Well, as you know, I’ve got this condition called haemophilia where my blood doesn’t clot properly. I wasn’t really allowed to do contact sports in school, so I set about trying to find sports I could do. I was just basically trying everything until I found something I was really good at. My dad and his mates started going mountain biking on the local trails every Thursday night and, when I was eleven, I started joining them. I asked one of the guys, Eric, if I could have a go on one of his road bikes - I think I was 13 at that time. I soon went and did a race, after which they said I was pretty quick, and it just carried on from there. I was doing other sports at the time, sailing, go-karting… Motor racing was what I really wanted to do because my dad used to race cars, but you almost need more bank balance than talent to do motor racing nowadays. As I was quite gifted on a bike I carried on with that. I was enjoying winning."
“I finished my A-Levels and everything, just in case, and there was talk of university, but the Great Britain Team gave me the opportunity to be on the under-23 team straight out of school, which was full-time and paid enough to live on, so I had an opportunity there that I couldn’t pass up. I went straight from school out to Tuscany. I lived out there for three years - well, in Manchester in the winters but Italy in the summers."
“After three years with the Great Britain team, Italy was proving too hilly for me to really excel so I needed to find another opportunity. Back when he wasn’t the villain that he is now, Lance Armstrong had an under-23 development team. I got seventh place in the under-23 world championships then got offered a place on that team. That year I won the under-23 European championships and got a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. That’s when I got picked up by Team Sky. I was with them for two years, which was 2011 and 2012, and then joined Movistar in 2013."
“A lot of people questioned that move. I think a lot of people just viewed Sky as the perfect place for a British bike rider but I wasn’t being put in the really big races, I was always in the smaller races with the B team. They were always saying to me that they’d like to put me in the big races but that I lacked experience so, to me, it made a lot of sense to go somewhere where they were going to give me that experience, so I moved to Movistar and they put me straight into the Tour of Italy, which is the first big, major tour. I managed to win the time trial there and Bradley Wiggins was second. That kind of proved that the move was a good one. That was nice for everyone who had questioned me!"
“Movistar really wanted me and had a plan for me. Yeah, for me it was nice. The other teams were like, ‘We’ll have Alex, he’s a good rider,’ but Movistar were like, ‘We want Alex and these are the plans we have for him’. I really liked that."
“They delivered on everything they promised. I was meant to ride the Tour de France that year but I picked up a cold which turned into bronchitis two weeks beforehand, so that ruled me out. Up until that point I was definitely in. It was a shame but, with hindsight, if I had ridden the Tour de France I might have been too tired to win the Commonwealth Games, so every cloud…”
An injury ended Alex’s hopes of participation in the London Olympics in 2012.
“Yeah, It was about three months before the Olympics. I spent a good two months in hospital because they had to put a plate in and I picked up an infection similar to MRSA, so I had two months on antibiotics and about four operations and all sorts, which was fun. So that ruled me out of the Games. But that’s pretty much standard bike racing to be honest: it’s mostly average or bad days but you never really remember those, you only remember the really good days like the Commonwealth Games."
“It’s funny, you know, at the time trial in the Commonwealth Games it was great. I won that and then three days later we had the road race and it was absolutely lashing it down, really cold, horrible circuit and it wasn’t something I’d prepared for and I don’t think I even made half distance on it, so you come back down to earth with a massive bump after that.”
Metaphorical bumps aren’t a problem but physical ones are a real hazard to a haemophiliac.
“When I told the doctors that I’d taken up bike racing, they said, ‘We’d rather you played chess, but if that’s what you really want to do then that’s fine’."
“By the time I got into cycling I’d kind of got on top of the haemophilia, I wasn’t having so many problems, which was largely down to the amount of swimming I was doing just to keep me really fit and healthy. That, along with the medication I have to take for it, was keeping the haemophilia at bay.
“It’s nice because I’m one of the first generation of haemophiliacs on good, synthetic medication. I’m also the first haemophiliac who is competing at this level of a very physical sport. The doctors are actually really wanting me to progress as far as possible in cycling because it’s sending out a message to young haemophiliacs and their families that it doesn’t actually have to hold you back. It’s very easy for the mothers to wrap their kids up in cotton wool and I think one of the big things for me was how active I was as a youngster. I was doing sports that I was allowed to do, but I did a lot of them. I think that’s the reason that my haemophilia is quite manageable, whereas if I had sat inside, done nothing and been really, really careful, then I’d actually have more joint and muscle problems than I’ve had being really fit and healthy."
“My parents worried massively - mum still does. When I was a kid, the doctors would always tell my parents the worst case scenario, like they said if I broke a bone I’d be in hospital for a month. In 2010 I broke my shoulder blade in Holland and I was back on a static bike in seven days and I was back out on the road in 10 days, and I won the European Championships seven weeks later, so…”
In addition to the knocks and the races, Alex has to cope with a pretty gruelling training regime.
“Sometimes it wears you down but other times it’s quite nice because you get to go home. Take this week for example, I’ve had the Tour of Britain which has been eight really hard days, but now I’ve got three days at home when I don’t really have to do much training because it’s all about recovering from Tour of Britain, so I can kind of enjoy myself a little bit, within reason. No big nights out or anything like that."
“Yesterday my mate was racing a motorbike around Brands Hatch so I could watch that for a bit. Try and lead a normal life for a little while. With me and my mates a lot of that normal life revolves around cars. We all kind of buy and sell cars through my mate’s company, which is good fun because we’re all really passionate about it. We go go-karting a lot as well. It’s great because we’re all into different things. One of my mates is building a race-spec, Ford Mustang Fastback which’ll be cool, and another couple of the boys are into their Mitsubishi Evos. Yeah, we’ve all got our own little things going on, which is quite nice. Spend a fair bit of time in Nando’s as well.”
Alex is serious about his passion for cars.
“Yeah, I have the Lotus and the Mercedes. The Lotus came from the dealer at Silverstone gloss black. I had matt black Batman stickers put on it as well. Then, pretty soon after I took it over to Yiannimize [a top vehicle wrapping specialist in London]. I had an idea of what I wanted, and then Bert and Yianni disagreed with me and told me what would actually look best! I trusted them and it looks phenomenal now.
“My original idea was grey with bits of bright red or... something. Then I thought maybe orange with bits of black. I wasn’t really entirely sure, I had a lot of different ideas. At Yiannimize they actually had a Lamborghini Aventador sat there that they’d wrapped in a very similar colour and they said that would look amazing on the Lotus, so I trusted them and left the car with them for a week. They actually said that, even though the car is tiny, it was one of the hardest cars they’ve ever wrapped because all the panels are so big on it. Whereas on a normal car you have the front bumper, the front wings and the bonnet, on the Lotus it’s like one big front piece going from one door around to the other door. So, yeah, they said it was a nightmare. But it looks beautiful, so…”
DOW 553T is not Alex’s first private number plate.
“I’ve got one that was an 18th birthday present. Mum and Dad wanted to get me something that I could keep for the rest of my life, so they found N2 ALX. Everyone except my sister’s got plates. My mum’s got her initials, JMD; Dad’s got his initials and then on his work van he’s got his company initials as well. We’ve always had plates.
“I think it makes a car a bit more individual. I like having a car that no one else has got. I like having a car that turns heads and a plate adds to the individuality of the car. If I was rolling around in a car that just looked like every other car on the road then it’d annoy me. I had a C63 AMG before the ML and I loved it, it was an absolutely brilliant car, but after having it for half a year loads of them started popping up and it really frustrated me that there were so many. So that’s part of the reason I got the ML 63, I barely see any of them on the road. Given the fuel consumption on it, I now know why! I just like the individuality of it and I think a plate really adds to all that.
“DOW 553T couldn’t be more perfect. It’s difficult to find something that spells exactly what you want it to spell without compromising. It’s incredible to have something that’ll really stand out. There’s not going to be any hiding, that’s for sure! Everyone’s quite envious.”
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Photography: Stan Thompson