Plenty of Tread Left

On the eve of his 21st season as a professional bike racer we spoke to one of the UK’s most popular riders, Russell Downing, and found out he’s a long way from calling it a day

Words: Chris Sidwells
Photos: Andy Jones

CL: You will be 40 this year, do you still feel enthusiastic and could you carry on after this year?

Russ: "Yeah, I still feel enthusiastic, yeah. Bike riding to me is just every day, it’s so… not easy to do, but once I get out the door I enjoy it. Sometimes it’s harder to actually get out the door now, with everything that’s going on around me. Work, teams, married life, you know."

CL: When you say teams, you mean your new one this year, Holdsworth Pro Racing, a team created from scratch. Along with Dave Loughran, the man behind the Holdsworth bike brand, you’ve created this team haven’t you, you and your brother Dean, the team manager?

Russ: "Yeah, there’s been such a lot to do with the team to get things ready and get them right. Still though, as soon as I get out on my bike I don’t want to come home. I get home and I’d rather just keep doing laps around the village, but time schedules get in the way and you have to come home. I love the sport, and even if I wasn’t a pro I would do it until I couldn’t do it anymore."

Image of Russ Downing
CL: What do you feel like physically?

Russ: "I feel good, I’m 40 later this year but I don’t feel as though I’m 40 years old. I still don’t feel like I’m that old in normal life, never mind on a bike. I feel a bit….. not slower but not as fast, if you see what I mean. I’ve kept strong, I always feel strong. I go out and feel as though I can kill the same speed for four or five hours. I still get really good days when I feel as though the legs just want to spin forever. I’m enjoying it, so yeah, I still feel good and I still love it."

CL: You are the most likely man in the team to win races this year, aren’t you?

Russ: "On paper yeah. On paper, but if I can still do that we’ll see. I had some chances at JLT (Downing’s team for the last two years), but my role there was to help other people out. In my first year there, in 2016, I won that stage in the Tour du Loire-et-Cher, in France. I was leading Chris Lawless out at the front from 500 metres to go, but he couldn’t hold me and I just carried on and took the win."

CL: There were a couple of times that year when you were distancing Chris in your lead-outs

Russ: "Yeah. It’s in the longer harder races when I come into my own. People get tired and I don’t get as tired, which is what 20-odd years of endurance racing does for you I suppose. Another one was Ride London in 2016, I got near the front coming into the Mall, looked around and couldn’t see Chris. So I went back for him, brought him up to the front to where I’d been, dropped him off there and then he just didn’t have the legs. But Chris was young, he’s a great talent, and when his endurance is fully there he’ll have a good future."

CL: So you feel that if Holdsworth can get in big races, then there’s a win or some good results to be had?

Image of Russ Downing Russ: T"here’ll definitely a show. We won’t just get in a race and sit around at the back. We’ll go for the breakaways or go for a jersey. I’ll try and stay upright if we get in the Tour de Yorkshire. I was flying in it last year, but crashed out on day one. Absolutely gutted, but that’s bike racing. Yeah, a bit of good luck would be nice. I’ve not had too much good luck all through my career, so it would be nice to have some for the last few years."

CL: Also on paper it looks like the team will be fast team. A good team for the Tour Series. It should be a real contender in that.

Russ: "Yeah, the Mazzone brothers are very quick. Mattia Viel is quick, he’s worked a lot on his strength and his speed; he’s also been in the Italian national track squad. And then there’s a couple of the Irish guys, they’re a bit of an unknown to us. They came onboard, and we’re kind of getting to know them now through Dean’s studying their training, and they are really quick. Dermot Trulock is pretty quick and Connor McDunphy can turn a good screw. So yeah, we’ve got options. We’ve had a few camps together now, and bits and bobs to get to know each other, but everyone gets on well. We’ve been getting together and all finding out how people roll, I can’t wait to get started racing. It will be good to have a good hit out tomorrow, and see where we are."

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CL: What’s this team feel like compared to the other teams you’ve been in, does it feel good?

Russ: "It feels much the same as other teams. We’re getting really well looked after clothing wise. Every time you go into the Holdsworth HQ at Planet X you come away with more stuff, a rucksack full usually. Lisa is going mad because the spare room is full with about ten rucksacks full of stuff. I must have had fifteen pair of gloves given."

CL: Is it as much as you got with Team Sky?

Russ: "I think I’ve probably got more, yeah definitely got more helmets, and I had to put some hooks up in the room. I’ve got seven Carnac helmets up there now, spoilt for choice but it’s all good."

CL: One of the main purposes of the team is to build up Holdsworth Bikes as a brand. Are the riders going to have input on the bikes, their design, or is it just being there to push the brand?

Image of Russ Downing Russ: "Me and Dean did a lot of work with Dave (Loughran) in the winter getting a UCI Continental pro team up and running, and up and running in a way that we’re going to be, I think, for the next year or so. Then we will be testing new things. We’ve just launched a gravel bike, the Holdsworth Mystique. Dave loves his gravel bikes, so we went to the same company who did the Holdsworth Professional frame that we’re racing on, and they got the gravel bike up and running. It saved my training in all the snow we had. It’s a really good ride, great fun and it goes anywhere. I think there’s a Holdsworth track bike in the pipeline next."

CL: So might you be doing some track racing later on?

Russ: "Maybe, although track is a young man’s sport. Mattia (Viel) is definitely fancying a bit of track racing though. Jake Womersley as well. So there’s a lot of potential for me not to just be a bike rider now, but to help develop a brand and the products. Both products, Carnac helmets and shoes, as well as Holdsworth bikes. That’s what excited me about this project in the first place. It’s like I’ve got a bit more input into the sport, and not just being a number in a bike racing team."

CL: And finally, the Holdsworth Professional bikes you’re riding now, how do they compare with bikes that you’ve ridden in the past?

Russ: "Very good, yeah. A lot of people say a bike’s a bike, but they’re wrong. The kit is good, Campag Super Record. We’ve got some of the best wheels in the world, Campag Boras. When you put a pair of those in your bike you instantly ride good. The bike feels nice. I tested a few different ones before we chose the design we’ve got. I tried semi-aero, non-aero, brake underneath, brakes on top, and I just thought with Holdsworth being an old brand we needed to keep it conventional. Dave went with me on that, he felt the same. So we’ve gone with a conventional bike, it’s aero but has conventional geometry really, and standard caliper brakes. It feels comfortable. I’ve been on it now a couple of weeks and I’m starting to feel really comfortable on it. It’s as nice a bike as I’ve ever had."

You can find out more about Holdsworth bikes on www.holdsworth-bikes.co.uk

The day after this interview Russell kicked off his 21st pro season with third place in the 30th running of the Roy Thame Cup. Roy Thame was the mainstay of the original Holdsworth bike company and the man who created and ran the original Holdsworth-Campagnolo team.

Image of Russ Downing