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…”
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