Age no barrier for evergreen Russell Downing as he reflects on the end of Team Sky, going it alone and a career well-spent ahead of CiCLE Classic start

Even in the modern peloton, where science and technology have helped to propel race speeds to new highs, there are plenty of examples of how age remains no barrier to success.

Jens Voigt rode his final Tour de France aged 43; Chris Horner won the Vuelta a Espana at 41; Mat Hayman won Paris-Roubaix just days before his 38th birthday – even this year’s winner, Philippe Gilbert, is in his 37th year.

On the domestic front, Malcolm Elliott’s CiCLE Classic success arrived aged 45 when he sprinted to victory in Melton Mowbray in 2007.

Russell Downing is a former team-mate of both Elliott and Hayman, and the 40-year-old will be on the start line of the revised Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic again this year.

Yorkshireman Downing will ride for the East Midlands Division in that race, alongside another icon of the British cycle sport scene, 50-year-old Colin Sturgess.

“There’s a few old boys in that team,” Downing admits, with typical understatement. Experienced would be another way to put it, and you would not bet against either handing out some punishment to the peloton.

Being a UCI race – the 1.2-classified race forms part of the UCI Europe Tour – riders must race in teams, which is a change from the season’s norm so far for Downing.

Not yet ready to hang up his cleats, the 2005 national champion is racing as a one-man band this season, supported by Phil Griffiths and Yellow Ltd.

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Griffiths was the man who backed Elliott in 2007, while he and Downing worked together when the latter raced for him at the end of the last decade – his performances earning a founding place with Team Sky.

And the latest partnership has already seen Downing finish fifth at the Eddie Soens Memorial Cycle Race at Aintree and second at the Danum Trophy.

The Rotherham-born rider says continuing racing this season, particularly while he is still getting results, was a no-brainer.

“I’ve got so much love for the sport, and so much passion for the sport,” he says. “I’m still able to train. I’ve still got the passion to race.

“That’s the thing – if you are turning up to races and feel as though you’re just making up the numbers you think ‘I’ve got a wife and a house to keep tabs on nowadays, perhaps I should be putting a bit more time and effort into that.’

“[But] why stop, when you’re still getting up there?”

With a professional career stretching back to before the turn of the century, Downing admits there were some doubts about whether going solo was the right thing to do.

But performances so far have convinced him he was right to, and he says he is relishing being able to ride without pressure.

“The one thing I’m really enjoying is just riding my bike – I turn up at a race and there’s no pressure from anybody,” he adds.

“All of my sponsors – Griffo and all of his brands; Pinarello; Rawvelo, my new nutrition partner – there’s no pressure from any of these guys. They’re helping me out and supporting me because they want to.

“I rock up, a one-man band, turn up to the race and take my own bike, go to the sign-on and everything like that. I turned up to my first race and I did think, ‘am I doing the right thing here?’ But I’m riding well, and I’m enjoying it.

“I’m a one-man band – obviously it’s a bit risky but I’ve got enough friends in the peloton if I need to squeeze a wheel or a bottle out of them. I’m pulling in the favours now.”

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Downing certainly has plenty of friends in the peloton, having been a mainstay of the British racing scene for so long.

That goes from training with the fabled ‘Donny chaingang’ on his local roads, to his two-year stint with Team Sky which included becoming the first Briton to win an individual race with the team.

CiCLE Classic race director Colin Clews is the man behind his and Sturgess’ appearance at one of Britain’s toughest races, while Downing’s choice of races this season have reflected his hardman status.

“I’m not just going to go to any bike race,” Downing admits. “I can pick the races I want to do.

“Obviously, there are a few events my sponsors want me to do, and sportives, but generally I’m just enjoying still riding my bike. I did some time out in Mallorca doing my own cycling and then doing some sponsor work with the Pinarello experience, for example.

“[Colin Clews] approached me last year – they’ve got a new race on the calendar, the Bourne CiCLE Classic.

“He approached me to come and promo that and we had a good couple of days down there. And I think he just thought of me [for this year’s race].”

As Downing’s career goes on, however, one era he played a big part in comes to an end this month – Sky’s sponsorship of Britain’s only WorldTour team ending after nearly ten years.

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The team will henceforth be known as Team Ineos, and Downing expects them to go on and become ‘bigger and better’ under their new sponsors.

But reflecting on Team Sky’s near decade at the top, having raced both with the team and later back on the British domestic scene, he believes success has trickled down to the local level.

“It has raised the game in the UK scene,” Downing reflects. “Guys from the British UCI Continental teams have gone on to ride for Sky. I think just having it so close to home gives them something to aspire to.

“Back in the day when it was just one guy going to ride in Europe, that looked a little more out of your reach.

“It has gone up and down. We lost a couple of teams last year – JLT-Condor and Holdsworth – but British Cycling has really, really gone up since Beijing if not before.

“It was great to be part of that. [Team Sky] probably came a little too late for me, in truth, but I took the opportunity with two hands. I was the first British individual winner for the team and it was great.”

Now, Russ is looking to the future too – as well as his racing commitments, he has taken on a mentoring role with brother Dean’s coaching project, Downing Cycling.

Dean is the numbers man, having moved into coaching on his own retirement in 2014, while Russ is serving as a mentor.

The younger Downing brother’s role calls on his racing experience at the highest level, for example, offering advice to Ben Tullett ahead of the Paris-Roubaix Juniors race.

“I think it’s working well with Deano doing the actual training and me being a mentor for the guys,” he reflects, again in an understated manner.

Results will be the real proof, but Downing’s young charges could do a lot worse for a mentor than a man still putting the hurt on into his 40s.

Main image courtesy of Sigma Sports, via YouTube.

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