1) When and how did you start cycling?
I started racing when I was 8 years old on the track in the UK. My dad was a cyclist, and so were grandad and his 4 brothers. They used to tour around the UK on their bikes in the 50’s and 60’s, so you could say that cycling has always been in my blood.
When I was younger I played football at a good level, so it was always football in the winter/spring and then cycling in the summer. I stopped playing football when I was 17 and started to concentrate more on cycling, which meant that my riding and training volume increased.
2) What age did you go full time on the bike? Who were you riding for at the time?
In 1993 I was 18 and I started to train properly whilst studying at college. I got an invite to attend a Great Britain Junior Track Squad session, so this is when cycling started to get more serious for me. I wouldn’t call it full time as I was still at college at the time, but I went on to represent GB as a Junior in the UK and in Europe. I also got a bronze medal at the National Track Champs when I was 18.
The next 5 years were spent at college and university as I wanted to get a degree in Construction Management. Throughout these years I raced with a UK club called VC St Raphael. I won some British University titles on road and track, a few road races in the UK and a good few crits. By the end of 1999 I was thinking about full time riding and giving it a go, to see how far I could get. I was working in London as a site engineer and my boss was always interested in how my race had gone at the weekend. I remember winning a stage of the Surrey League Easter 3 day and I got my photo in the Cycling Weekly and showed it to my Boss. He asked me about the Tour de France and if I could become a professional cyclist or even could I make a living being a professional cyclist. This really did plant the seed in my head of potentially regretting not trying to make a career in the sport. In November 1999 I saved up a few quid, quit my job and headed off to Australia for 3 months. That’s when I went full time with cycling. I was 24 years old.
3) You had a successful career racing professionally on the road and in the crits, and also on the track for Great Britain - can you name some career highlights that really stand out for you?
I spent 4 years racing in Belgium, mainly in the Inter Club semi classics and kermesse scene, and I really loved it. Then, in 2003, myself and my brother Russell decided to enter the British Madison Champs back in the UK. To a lot of people’s surprise we won it, beating 3 pairings that were all on the GB Senior Track Squad in the process. This performance got us a trial on the National Squad, and subsequently in 2004 we were part of the British Track Squad racing on the road and track in preparation for all the World Cup Track events and World Track Champs in Melbourne in May 2004.
Racing at the Worlds with my younger brother was so cool. I actually had terrible legs that day, but Russ was going great. We finished 11th in the World Madison and with that qualified Great Britain a place at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Thinking about it now, that’s certainly up there as one of the best highlights of my cycling career, yeah…
Becoming British Crit Champ in 2002 was also a high point. I won it again in 2008 and in 2009 the televised Crit series The Tour Series was launched. Being in the red, white and blue stripes of British Champion twice a week on tv, and occasionally winning, was fantastic for my UK profile.
However, I think it has to be said that the main highlight for me throughout my cycling career is the people that I have met along the way, from riders and staff, to all the amazing cycling fans that we have in the UK. I have been fortunate enough to visit and race my bike in countless countries along the way. Looking back on it, being a pro bike rider for 10 years+ was a great experience, that’s for sure.
4) When you stopped racing professionally, did you know what you wanted to do? If so, what plans did you have in place already?
In 2009 I had some really good chats with Rod Ellingworth, who was the original coach behind the British Cycling under 23 academy and one of the head coaches at Team Sky from 2010 onwards. He asked me about coaching and if it was something that might interest me after retiring. To be honest though, it was 2009, I was British Crit champ and I was in great shape so it wasn’t something that I had really considered. However, in the back of my mind I think it was always something that I had wanted to do. I went on to complete the British Cycling coaching courses and qualified as a BC coach in 2011. Fast forward a couple of years and I was riding at more corporate events outside of racing, talking with different clubs and really considering my options for when I did retire from racing..
In 2014 I signed with the NFTO team, and, along with the owner John Wood, we agreed that 2014 would be my last racing year and that my last race would be in July at the Sheffield Grand Prix. During the season I agreed to work with several brands for 2015, but the main decision was agreeing to become part of Trainsharp Coaching setup with Jon Sharples and Sean Yates. They were definitely key in selling me the idea of giving coaching a go with their help, so in 2015 I had a good plan for after racing. I had a few ambassador roles lined up with some cycling brands, and I was excited to be learning the ropes of coaching with Trainsharp.
It was a pretty smooth transition to be fair..
5) What do you do for work now?
In November 2017 I left Trainsharp coaching to start up my own brand. Alongside my brother Russ, we are now the proud owners of Downing Cycling. I’m a Full Time Head Coach and Russ works as a Mentor with some of the riders that I coach (when there is racing), and he also does lots of work online on the Zwift Platform running our Donny Chain Gang twice a week.
In January 2020 we took on Tom Stewart who coaches riders under the Downing Cycling brand. We have also just taken onboard another coach, Tom Townsend, who has recently qualified as a level 3 coach. Tom T has been a coached rider of mine for the last 2.5 years, and I think it’s fair to say that we have been growing steadily since November 2017. Managing it all is a full time business, but it’s great to be growing each year.
6) Was it hard to transition from a full time athlete into your current work?
The actual transition was good as I had lots of plans in place for work in 2015, but as is the case with most other walks of life, not everything runs smoothly all the time. In July 2015 I was involved in a hit and run whilst out riding my bike and I had a serious knee ligament injury. I was fortunate enough to recover pretty quickly, but being out of work for 6 months, and then re-building over for the next 6, really did take its toll on my finances. The hardest hit hard, though, was my mental health, and this made the transition tougher.
Since November 2017 I’ve not concentrated on being a bike rider all the time, but rather on building the Downing Cycling brand and business. I’m excited about the future!
7) How would you say cycling has had a positive impact on your current position but also in general life?
Cycling really has been a big part of my life for over 40 years now. The friends that I have made over those years all over the world, and the experiences that I have had, have all given me great memories. Hopefully it has also rewarded me with some knowledge that I can pass on to my coached riders and everyone involved with Downing Cycling.
I remember 2012 and the Rapha Condor Sharp team that was full of young riders fresh out of the junior and U23 ranks. Looking back now, I learnt so much then about helping young riders with the knowledge that I had gained over the years. I really didn’t realise it at the time, but it helped me as much as it helped them…
For example, rooming with Felix English on a Training Camp in Benidorm for 2 weeks was full of chats about everything, racing around the world, beating Chris Hoy on the track (him, not me!), and generally getting to know how the younger riders approached everything differently to the older boys like Kristian House, Jimmy McCallum, Tom Southam and myself.
Overall though, cycling has always been a positive aspect of my life. I met my wife Katy when I was a pro cyclist and now we have 2 kids together who can both ride a bike and experience the joy and freedom that it can bring.