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Cyclist Dean Downing with his arms in the air as he crosses the finishing line with spectators behind barriers on both sides of the road and other riders in the background

Dean Downing: The Brother UK Cycling Podcast's first guest

The names Dean and Russell Downing are synonymous with British cycle sport. Dean, the elder of the siblings that dominated domestic road racing in arguably its strongest era, is good conversation, to say the least.

The first guest on the new Brother UK Cycling Podcast, he has much to discuss. The decision to extend his interview from one episode to two is soon reached.

 

 

Dean’s riding career by itself would justify a broadcast or article: countless domestic victories, a Track World Championships campaign for Team GB, professional qualifications gained at Sheffield Hallam University and a sporting education gained in the all-consuming cycling culture of Flanders.


“I always had the motto: ‘The finish line is there for a reason. You’ve got to cross it first.’ That’s the aim. Why else would you be there? How you get there is another matter.”


Dean’s motivations align with Brother UK’s in his embrace of continuous improvement and the value he places on long-term relationships, notably with Russell, but also with former team manager John Herety and his two most successful coaching clients, both of whom he met as juniors.

His work as a coach has already yielded two world championships for Ben Tulett (Alpecin-Fenix) and British elite road and time-trial titles for Alice Barnes (Canyon-SRAM), riders he first met through Ben’s father Alistair. Both are stars of a new era in cycle sport, but Dean’s embrace of modern, data-driven training methods has not come at the expense of the innate will to win obvious to any who watched him race.

“I always had the motto: ‘The finish line is there for a reason. You’ve got to cross it first.’ That’s the aim. Why else would you be there? Yes, racing is great fun, but if you’re a winner, the aim is to cross that finish line first. How you get there is another matter,” he says.

His determination to be the smartest rider in a race, even when he was not the strongest is both evidenced and obscured by the most satisfying triumph of his domestic career: victory in 2007 atop the brutal Michaelgate climb to conclude a savage war of attrition with Gordon McCauley, held in arguably the worst conditions witnessed at the Lincoln Grand Prix. ‘Deano’ hung tough and used all of his wiles to win on that day of days.

He is enthused by the abundance of young British talent and saddened by the demise of the domestic road scene. His analysis of the current malaise is, however, clear-sighted, rather than condemnatory. He identifies a vicious circle in which a steady diminution in the number of top-class races has prompted Britain’s best teams and riders to race abroad.

Our conversation is littered with names from a golden era for domestic cycle sport so recent it can almost be touched, and yet already passed into history; riders, managers, sponsors and races. The future, he hopes, can be brighter still.

Brothers Dean and Russell Downing wearing cycling clothing while straddling their bikes in front of a glass walled building with tables and parasols in the background

Family affair

Dean and Russell were preceded by two generations of cycling Downing brothers. Their grandfather Cyril was one of five boys, all of whom would cycle the length and breadth of the country to watch top-class racing. A ride across the Pennines from their home near Rotherham to watch Tom Simpson race at Fallowfield seems small beer compared to a later journey south to Herne Hill, broken by a stop at Peterborough.

Cyril passed his love of the bike to sons Ken and John. The former, Dean and Russell’s father, was a noted track rider, racing on grass and hard surfaces, and winning a bronze medal in the national tandem championships in the 1960s. Uncle John was another track specialist with a career that spanned three decades. Dean and Russell, therefore, are members of an authentic cycling dynasty, born in the coalfields of South Yorkshire. Community is as important to Dean as to Brother UK, a business as supportive of its neighbours in Tameside as its partners in British cycle sport.


“There’s definitely a bond between brothers. In good times, we each knew what the other was thinking, and in tough times we were able to help each other, on the bike and off.”


Dean recalls a childhood spent in the mining village of Thurcroft. He and Russell were among 20 children who lived on Steadfolds Lane and who would play together on a grass oval. Football was a daily activity (Russell later joined the academy at Rotherham United). When the group played “Olympics”, their bicycles became a tool for something more than “burning around the crescent”. A competitive pairing that would later compete at a World Championships was born.

“There’s definitely a bond between brothers. In good times, we each knew what the other was thinking, and in tough times we were able to help each other out, on the bike and off. Russ is a born winner. He was always the more focussed and winning rider. I had my share of victories, but Russ had some fantastic wins. We’d work off the back of each other. Getting one-twos with your brother is pretty cool,” Dean says.

Victories for Russell, just ahead of Dean, at the 2005 and 2008 editions of the Lincoln Grand Prix, and victory for Dean at the same race in 2007, when Russell finished third, offer an insight into their dominance of the domestic road scene, either when racing for the same or competing teams. The partnership reached its apotheosis, however, as the national Madison champions picked to represent Great Britain at the 2004 World Championships.

Brothers Dean and Russell Downing leading a group of cyclists at a velodrome with spectators in the background

World class

Dean and Russell followed separate paths in their early careers, but in 2003 won the British madison title together. Their victory, achieved at the expense of several pairings from British Cycling’s World Class Performance Plan, brought them to the attention of Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton.

The federation selected them for the madison at every round of the 2003/04 UCI Track World Cup. Brailsford was transparent about their purpose: to qualify Great Britain for the same event at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, at which two members of his vaunted team pursuit squad would take over.


“To ride the World Championships with the brother you’d burned around the crescent with as kids was pretty amazing.”


Echoing Brother UK’s ability to recognise opportunity in adversity, Dean pivoted the skills he had developed on the roads of Belgium to overturn the age handicap incurred by his successful pursuit of professional qualifications. Undeterred by Brailsford’s brutal honesty concerning the likelihood of an Olympic dream, he supplanted younger riders on the World Class Performance Plan to win a place in track cycling’s annual showcase: the World Championships.

“We were eighth in the final round in Sydney and selected for the World Championships. To ride the worlds with the brother you’d burned around the crescent with as kids was pretty amazing,” Dean says.

He is frank about his performance in Melbourne, describing himself as “legless”. As is often the case, however, the rider’s perception differs from reality. The brothers rode well enough to achieve Great Britain’s goal of qualifying for the Athens Games.

“Russ had a fantastic day, and I had a terrible day. I think we finished [twelfth]. Sat here now, that seems pretty good, but on the day, I was consoled by Dave B, consoled by Shane, consoled by Chris Boardman. I was devastated that I hadn’t done my best for Russ, but also for Team GB,” he admits.

“But it turned out that we had qualified. Russ and I weren’t selected to ride the madison at the Olympics, but Bradley Wiggins and Rob Hayles took bronze. The Downing Brothers helped them to win a medal.”

The occasion has left a lasting impact on both brothers. In a joint interview given on the eve of Dean’s final race, Russell revealed that representing Great Britain at a World Championships had been his highlight of their many races together. “It hit me a bit, but I thought, ‘This is absolutely true,’” Dean reflects.

“My lasting memory of the World Championships had been of me not riding very well and us not finishing in the top five. Since that interview, the memory of my performance has been overtaken by the achievement of representing Great Britain at a World Championships with my brother.”

Cyclist Dean Downing with his arms in the air as he crosses the finishing line with spectators and other riders in the background

Lincoln calling

Family is a central theme of our conversation, whether it be the careers of the Downing brothers or the extended network Brother UK has created in British cycle sport by sponsorship of four teams, three races and a fleet of neutral service vehicles. It seems fitting therefore that Dean's grandfather Cyril inspired the most significant domestic victory of his career.

Dean's triumph in the 2007 Lincoln GP is immortalised in a series of photographs by Larry Hickmott, whose Brother UK-sponsored website lies at the heart of domestic road racing: a frame-by-frame sequence from the finish line in Castle Square that documents Dean’s almost immediate transition from ecstasy to emotional overload.


"I always wore my grandad's time-trial medal from 1939 as a pendant. I reached down, kissed the medal, went for the finale and won the race. All the emotions hit me at the end. I thought: 'I've done it. I can't believe it.'"


To this day, he struggles to explain the sensations that overwhelmed him at the end of a gruelling encounter held in such poor conditions that little more than half of the 150 entrants finished the race. Dean won by a length from Gordon McAuley and only then after nearly dishing his chances by riding across a drain cover on the final ascent of Michaelgate and losing five metres.

"It's a wonderful picture," he says of Hickmott's defining image, published on VeloUK.net and reproduced with Larry’s kind permission in this article: arms aloft, fists clenched and mouth open in a roar of triumph - "but it wasn't about the picture."

"I always wore my grandad's time-trial medal from 1939 as a pendant. When I watched the coverage on YouTube, it all came flooding back. I reach down, kiss the medal, go for the finale and win the race. All the emotions hit me at the end. I thought: 'I've done it. I can't believe it.'"

The Lincoln GP is an appropriate stage for a career-defining victory. First held in 1956, the winners' list from its 61 editions is littered with British champions, notably Russell Downing, whose four victories make him jointly the race's most successful rider.

The course is equal to a Belgian Classic, with its flat sections across echelon-inducing fenland, a straight, wide road leading back to an historic cathedral city, a rolling section of strength-sapping 'bergs' and, of course, an iconic cobbled climb.

"Lincoln is about 35 miles from my home. As a kid, I watched the pros ride up Michaelgate when the Milk Race came to Lincoln in the late 1980s. I raced there as a junior in 1993 as a Team GB track rider and finished in about fifteenth place after getting caught up in a crash. It was one of the last races my grandad Cyril came to watch. A few years later, he passed away," Dean remembers.

"In 2005, Russ and I came back from the Tour de Bretagne. We'd had a rest week and were both flying that day. We went head-to-head at the finish, and Russ beat me. In 2006, I was racing in Belgium, but in 2007, I'd come back to the UK to lead the Rapha-Condor team. I had a good start to the season, and that was the year I won the Lincoln GP."

Cyclist Dean Downing crossing the finishing line with another cyclist close behind and spectators cheering behind a barrier

Smart beats strong

The 'w' word resonates with Dean. Like his brother, he is a born winner; a natural competitor, who, during his riding career, was willing to embrace any amount of suffering to achieve the only result that mattered to him. Now a successful coach, he instils the same focus in clients who race.

He regards winning as the sole aim of the game; the overriding objective for anyone who pins on a number. Why bother to compete, if not to try and win? Dean's rational analysis is evidence of a logical approach to competition, rather than a mindset that prizes victory at any cost.


"It's not always the strongest rider who wins. Generally, the smartest rider will win. That's how I raced. I had to be smart because my lab tests were rubbish, to be fair!"


"I say to my riders: 'This is going to sound corny, but the finish line is there for a reason.' They say: 'Oh, yeah. That makes sense.' Some laugh, some don't. I say: 'What's your aim today? Do you want to win the race?' They answer: 'Yeah, yeah.' Well, how're you going to do it?"

Blessed with speed, strength and determination, Dean nevertheless lacked the crushing physical superiority of a Mathieu van der Poel or Peter Sagan. While he spent his entire career with capable teams, notably Rapha-Condor and NFTO, rarely was he given an armchair ride to victory. Finding a way to win became his raison d'etre; a sporting manifestation of Brother UK’s commitment to problem solving and providing solutions.

"A rider might have the strongest lab tests in the world and leave it all out on the road; then they get to the last 10km and find that the tank is empty," he says.

"Another rider who might not have been the strongest is going to win the race because he's saved some energy. It's not always the strongest rider who wins. Generally, the smartest rider will win. That's how I raced. I had to be smart because my lab tests were rubbish, to be fair!"

Dean did not begin training with a power meter until his final season. Working with team coach John Sharples at NFTO, he discovered a data-led approach to training which he now uses with clients. Identifying his own performance metrics – a threshold of circa 340w – unlocked a door to understanding the numerical analysis of human performance at the heart of applications like Training Peaks. The will to win, however, is hardcoded and cannot be quantified in mere numbers.

Cyclist  Ben Tulett riding along a muddy field with banners and scaffolding in the background

Chasing rainbows

Dean's victory at Lincoln provides an emphatic illustration of his mantra regarding the finish line. It is evident too in the rainbow stripes won by the most successful rider he has coached.

Still only 18, Ben Tulett has twice been the world junior cyclo-cross champion. Dean has known him since Tulett was five-years-old and began coaching him in his mid-teens. Now a member of Mathieu van der Poel's Alpecin-Fenix squad, Tulett's coaching is handled elsewhere, but the bond between rider and mentor remains unbroken.


"Seeing young Ben Tulett, whom I'd known since he was five-years-old, win a world championship was one of the best days of my coaching career, that's for sure."


"The first time Ben won the junior world cyclo-cross championships was insane, but the second time was even better," Dean recalls. "We knew he could do it, but he'd had a big injury in the winter. He'd bruised his patella after crashing into a plank. Working through the ups and downs of injury is a big step in the coaching of any rider."

Dean first met Tulett's father Alistair while training on Lanzarote in 2007. The pair remained in contact. When racing in the south, Dean would visit the Tulett family in Kent and note the progress made by Ben and his older brother Dan (Vitus Pro Cycling Team p//b Brother UK). The boys each won national titles in almost every age category, but when Ben reached fifteen, his performances plateaued.

Dean swiftly identified the problem. Greater efficiency in his preparation, enabled partly by a technical solution, was required.  Unstructured training and a passion for fast riding that led him to train with older riders forced him to take time off the bike to recover. Like many young riders, he was uncertain how to use his power meter. The partnership, rooted in structuring Tulett's training around his schoolwork, came to fruition in 2018.

"Ben won his first world title in Valkenburg. I didn't sleep a wink the night before. I was so nervous, but I knew that Ben could do it. I knew his power data and for how long he could hold an effort. We'd been training for the course," he recalls.

"Watching him win the world championships was quite emotional, but an unbelievable feeling. It was one of the best days of my coaching career, that's for sure, seeing young Ben Tulett, whom I'd known since he was five-years-old, win a world championship."

Tulett is not the only world-class rider Dean has coached. As of writing, Alice Barnes, the British road and time-trial champion, is the most successful rider on his books.

Side view of cyclist Alice Barnes as she has hear head down while riding along a road with greenery in the background

A question of confidence

Like Dean (and Ben Tulett), Alice is a cycling sibling, sister to Hannah, her team-mate at Canyon-SRAM. The younger Barnes has shown greater versatility, excelling in a host of disciplines, including mountain bike, cyclo-cross and track before focussing on the road. Like her coach, she has won the Lincoln Grand Prix.

Dean was an eye-witness to arguably her greatest success. He rode with Simon and Sue Barnes, Alice’s parents, in the support car that followed her during her triumphant ride to win the 2019 British time-trial championships. He notes the contrast between her performance and impassive response.


“Alice has lots of people at British Cycling and Canyon-SRAM who support her, but she needed somebody to talk to, who could tell her when to back off, when to chill out, and when to be confident.”


“She raced brilliantly. I saw the times she was posting. She was so fast around the course but afterwards was so blasé, having done the ride of her life to become British champion. She’s not super confident all the time, and that’s where a strong relationship between coach and athlete can be valuable. I remind her of everything she’s achieved and encourage her to believe in herself,” he says.

Resiliency, so critical in business, is also an essential characteristic of the successful cyclist. In cycling, as with technology, experts build systems from which their clients can draw the confidence to perform. Dean’s detailed training plans and words of encouragement form part of a wider support network.

“I’m just a very small part of Alice’s journey, but it was pretty cool to see her win the nationals last year. When she won the British time-trial title, she smashed it, but her confidence is not always 100 per cent. She has a lot of people at British Cycling and Canyon-SRAM who support her, but she needed somebody to talk to, who could tell her when to back off, when to chill out, and when to be confident. So, in my opinion, that’s what we’ve achieved together.”

Dean first met his star client through the Tulett family and recalls a diffident character. Years later, they met at the Newport Nocturne, where Alice was supporting her partner Ollie Wood (Canyon-dhb p/b Bloor Homes). She confessed that she didn’t use her power meter; a revelation that further convinced him of her formidable talent.

He describes the younger Barnes variously as a “bloody brilliant bike rider” and a dedicated athlete who “hits all the numbers, comments and gets it done.” The success the pair have enjoyed so far might only be the start of greater things to come.

Cyclist Dean Downing leading a group of cyclists as they approach the camera while riding up a hill with greenery in the background

A difficult transition

Retirement is a difficult transition for any professional athlete and perhaps for a cyclist most of all. The camaraderie of the peloton and the supporting cast of mechanics, soigneurs, journalists and volunteers represent a world within a world - one that can be difficult to leave behind.

Unlike many of his former colleagues however, Dean had planned his retirement and secured a series of promotional contracts with leading brands before hanging up his wheels at the end of 2014. By qualifying as a coach while still a rider, Dean had pivoted his core skillset to increase the long-term sustainability of his career in cycling.


"I was involved in a hit-and-run accident which damaged my cruciate and medial ligaments and put me out of work immediately. I didn't work for six months. I didn't earn any money for six months. That put me in a spiral."


2015 began well. His roster of coaching clients grew and promotional campaigns with Continental and WattBike progressed, while a project to develop a racing team with sponsor PolyPipe kept him inside the sport. Then disaster struck.

"I was involved in a hit-and-run accident which damaged my cruciate and medial ligaments and put me out of work immediately. The crash happened on a Friday, and I had to cancel a planned weekend of work. All of my contracts involved riding a bike: whether coaching or making promotional videos. Everything stopped. I didn't work for six months. I didn't earn any money for six months. That put me in a spiral. My retirement had been planned and then suddenly it wasn't," he says.

Leg injuries were a new and shocking development for one accustomed to fast-healing collarbones. A leg brace provided an unwanted reminder of his circumstances for three months, even before beginning a rehabilitation period of equivalent length. Contracts in the intervening period "fell away", including the proposed sponsorship of the PolyPipe team. While opportunities diminished, the pressing realities of providing for two young children grew.

“Our boy, Isaac, who's five now, was born in 2014 and was only a year old. Lily, our daughter, was six. My wife was working, but I wasn't. It was a really tough time, wondering where I was going with this," he reflects.

"I was outside of cycling. I wasn't round the races. I wasn't able to work. I wasn't able to get the contracts I'd planned for. Being unable to provide for my family was a tough mindset. Over time, I became more and more absorbed by how I was feeling."

Cyclist Dean Downing taking a bend in the road with spectators behind barriers on either side in a built up area

Reality and recovery

With the hardest year of his life drawing to a close, Dean called John Herety, who offered him a position as Assistant DS, working with Tim Kennaugh to manage the JLT-Condor squad's Tour Series campaign.

Herety's generosity "rescued me massively", Dean reflects, but with the team's budget allocated before his appointment, its value lay principally in returning him to the sport. His financial pressures remained largely unabated.


"All through 2016, I was so up and down. Red letters were coming in the post and bills were going out of the window. It was a really tough time, financially and mentally."


The emotional burden of mounting debts grew with each passing month of the new year. Dean's wife Katie, still working and coping well with the circumstances, began to recognise signs of depression in her husband – an observation later confirmed by medical diagnosis.

"All through 2016, I was so up and down. Red letters were coming in the post and bills were going out of the window. It was a really tough time, financially and mentally. I think it was about half-way through 2016 that my wife noticed the signs of depression," he says.

"She had been diagnosed with post-natal depression after Isaac's birth in 2014. I went to the doctor for a check-up because I was 40. By the end of the consultation, he’d diagnosed me with mild depression. In a sense, it was good, because the signs were there, but that journey continued for the whole of 2016."

The pressure was eventually lifted in 2017 by a settlement cheque from Leigh Day, the insurance company who’d fought Dean's case for compensation. His openness about the pressures faced until that point, however, offers an insight into the financial reality faced by many domestic pros on leaving the sport.

Dean raced at the highest level of British cycle sport for more than a decade, competing in arguably its most stable era. Even teams as outwardly professional as Rapha-Condor, Madison-Genesis and NFTO, however, did not have sufficient budget to pay their riders salaries on which they could retire from working life. Brother UK is rare in providing financial support to its sponsored teams, but the deep-rooted, structural change long called for by Phil Jones MBE, the company’s Managing Director, will be required before professional riders can leave the sport with their long-term future secured.

The present reality is one Dean is happy to share with younger riders. Asked by Sonia Pidcock, Tom's mother, at a recent Yorkshire Awards ceremony what advice he would give to her son's generation, he urged professional and elite riders to start their preparations for life after cycling while in the midst of their riding careers.

Dean Downing, Russell Downing and Graeme Briggs celebrating victory on a podium with sponsorship logos in the background

Lifelong learner

Success is the unifying factor in Dean Downing’s varied career. He has used the experience gained from winning the most prestigious races on the domestic calendar and representing his country at World Championships to coach two of the nation’s brightest talents to British and World titles.

Brave decisions as a young man led to professional qualifications and sporting sojourns in Australia and Belgium that contributed as much to his personal development as sporting. Still in his mid-forties, he is already well advanced in the next chapter of his professional life.


"A rider might have the strongest lab tests in the world and leave it all out on the road; then they get to the last 10km and find that the tank is empty."


Dean is a lifelong learner who delayed the start of his athletic career to follow an academic path. He has assimilated advice from experts including John Herety, Matt Bottrill and John Sharples into Downing Cycling, a coaching business with a varied client base that encompasses weekend warriors and world champions.

“People sometimes ask: ‘How do you fit in so many riders?’ I say: ‘Well, coaching is my job. I don’t do anything else now.’ I get up in the morning, turn on my phone and answer messages. I’m on phone calls with coached riders every day. I work from my home office and build training plans. Working with different riders every day is enjoyable, and I coach a broad spectrum of abilities.”

He speaks with authority about the challenges faced by the British road scene and a demise he believes began in 2014 after six seasons of growth. He identifies an erosion of the calendar and the loss of races like the Archer GP, and the Grand Prix of Essex, Havant and Richmond for a growing propensity among British-registered UCI Continental teams to race abroad. A reduction in their number provides a further incentive for young British talent to seek opportunities overseas, he argues, all to the detriment of a scene that thrived as recently as the last decade.

It's an unflinching but accurate summary of the domestic road scene; one that Brother UK through its comprehensive sponsorships and the passion of Managing Director Phil Jones MBE hopes to lead to a more sustainable future. While the sport delivers a valuable return on investment for Brother UK, fundamental changes to its commercial model are required to create the resiliency required to survive the inevitable turnover of commercial backers.

Dean’s progression from rider to coach is evidence however for the positive outcomes that can result from sport’s inevitable changing of the guard. The continued presence in domestic cycling of his generation is essential to its recovering an era of unprecedented strength. British road racing would have been a poorer place without the Downing brothers while they raced and, as Dean builds a reputation for coaching the best of the new generation, one suspects that this will remain the case.


Images by Larry Hickmott/VeloUK.net

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