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Alex Dowsett interview: I’m going after the Hour Record again

Craig Cunningham
7 Dec 2016

BikesEtc talks blood, sick and fears with British cycling’s legend-in-waiting

In a dark and fairly claustrophobic pressroom, away from the glitz and glam of posh cycling event the Rouleur Classic, BikesEtc got some one-to-one time with Movistar’s Alex Dowsett.

The no-frills surrounding, we discover, suits Dowsett who is a refreshingly down-to-earth kind of cycling star.

And the 28-year-old’s modesty strikes us as even more remarkable when he opens up and starts telling us about what led him to take up cycling in the first place.

‘I was diagnosed with haemophilia when I was younger,’ he tells us matter-of-factly. ‘And because of that I wasn’t allowed to do any contact sports at school.

‘That was pretty tough because everything revolves around playing things like football and rugby when you’re a kid.’

The Movistar rider was just 18 months old when he was diagnosed with the condition, which impairs the body’s ability to clot blood, making every cut and graze a potential problem.

Frustration

Given how much young boys love throwing themselves around the place, we can’t begin to imagine just how frustratingly restricted Dowsett’s childhood must have been.

‘It wasn’t easy,’ he admits. ‘Some parents wouldn’t invite me to their kid’s birthday parties because of the risk.

‘Some probably thought I had HIV, too. I was actually treated with synthetic medication but before I was born haemophiliacs were commonly treated with blood transfusions.

‘There are a ton of haemophiliacs who have HIV, hepatitis and all sorts of other diseases because of it. It’s pretty tragic.’

Not that Dowsett was the kind of kid to be held back. In fact, if anything, the disorder made him more determined than ever.

‘It’s something a lot of haemophiliacs have,’ Dowsett reveals, ‘the desire to prove themselves. For me it was like, “I can’t do football, so why not try sailing?”’

Which is exactly what he did, although his flirtation with the water didn’t last long.

Fish out of water

‘I was quite good at club level so went to an international competition, but got my ass absolutely handed to me,’ he laughs.

The experience persuaded him to look for an alternative and after trying sport after sport he stumbled upon cycling thanks to his dad, former touring car racing driver Phil Dowsett.

‘My dad used to go mountain biking with his mates and when I was 11 I joined them. He took me out training and we rode to the top of our local hill, which in Essex isn’t much of a hill – I still threw up at the top of it, though!’ he laughs.

One of Dowsett Snr’s riding pals had a son who raced bikes, and after a chance conversation with him, the now teenage Alex decided to have a crack himself.

‘He took me down to do a 10-mile time-trial on a course that I still do almost weekly in the summer.

‘The result? Twenty-eight minutes and one second, which I think for your first time-trial at 13 years old isn’t that bad.’

And it wasn’t. In fact, those watching were impressed, and older hands were quick to recognise his ability.

‘They told me I was good because the way I pedalled meant I just kept getting quicker.’

Determined to discover just how fast he could go, Dowsett entered the George Herbert Stancer 10-Mile Time Trial Championship – a schoolboy competition aimed at discovering the best up-and-coming time-triallists.

‘I qualified by the skin of my teeth,’ Dowsett tells us with characteristic modesty. ‘So I was off really early in the listings.’

Anxious wait

He may have barely qualified but Dowsett’s time that day set the bar high. ‘I did it in ‘21 minutes and 12 seconds,’ he recalls. ‘Everyone else was coming in slower, so I waited for two hours watching the board.’

The last boy to ride that day was another Essex-born teenager by the name of Ian Stannard (who Dowsett would later go on to ride with at Team Sky).

‘Ian registered a slower halfway split before turning it around and beating me. I just remember looking at the scoreboard at the end.

‘Ian was 16 at the time. I was just 14 and I’d come second in a field where everyone else in the top 10 was also 16. That’s when I thought, “this is it. This is a sport I’m quite good at.”

‘That’s when I fell in love with cycling.’

Not that his love of cycling was his prime motivation for trying track racing. That had more to do with fellow British pro Adam Blythe, who Dowsett had met on the racing scene as a teenager.’

The track thing was funny,’ Dowsett grins. ‘Adam’s probably going to kill me for saying this but I went up to Manchester to do track league because I was, basically, after his sister. Which, erm didn’t work out!’

Switching to track racing, however, evidently did.

Cometh the Hour

Fast forward to 2014. By now the teenage time-triallist was a bona fide track star so sure of his abilities that he announced his intention to attempt the sacred World Hour Record the following year.

‘When you’re doing the Hour for the first time you’re in uncharted territory,’ Dowsett admits.

‘In training you may do an hour on the track but you’ll never do the full hour. Instead it’s broken up into loads of different chunks. It’s not like in time-trialling either where you just train to go faster.

‘With the Hour, we were training to make the lap time as easy as possible.’ There’s nothing easy about the Hour Record, however, and there was nothing that could prepare Dowsett for what would transpire at the Manchester Velodrome on 2nd May 2015.

‘I remember we got going and the crowd was nuts,’ he smiles. As a pro cyclist, Dowsett had had plenty of experience of cheering roadside fans, but riding alone surrounded by throngs of people all willing him on was an entirely different experience.

‘I’ve raced in front of big crowds but never in front of thousands of people who were solely there just to watch me. It was surreal and scary,’ he grins. ‘But mostly scary.’

Known as ‘The Race of Truth’ a time-trial sees riders pit themselves against that most unforgiving of opponents – the clock. And the Hour record is the ultimate TT challenge.

No egos

Not that it’s simply a question of going flat out for 60 minutes. ‘We went in with no egos,’ Dowsett explains. ‘We didn’t want to show off. We just wanted to get the record with the most conservative plan.

‘We had a schedule in place to just beat Rohan Dennis’s mark. It didn’t matter if we did it by a metre or a kilometre.’

Perfect pacing, then, would be key, so how did Dowsett manage it?

‘That’s why having Steve at the side of the track was so important,’ Dowsett says of his coach, Steve Collins.

‘He helped me stick to the schedule. If he held out his hand flat, my previous lap had been 17 seconds, if he put one finger in the air I’d done 16.9, two fingers towards the floor I’d done 17.2.’

Around 30 minutes into the attempt, however, doubt began to creep into Dowsett’s mind.

‘I was seemingly falling behind, and I imagined the crowd was thinking that they were just watching a pretty poor attempt at the Hour,’ he reveals.

As the excitement started to drain from the stadium, Dowsett’s response was typical – he upped the pace.

Upping the pace

‘Then at 32 minutes, I began to pull it back. The crowd went nuts and I went seven or eight tenths of a lap seconds too fast!’

The atmosphere once again crackled and now it was coach Collins’ turn to worry. ‘Steve was just mouthing at me ‘slow the f*** down,’ Dowsett laughs.

Collins’ fears were unfounded, though, as Dowsett stayed the course, improving all the time until it came to the finale.

‘The last 10 minutes were just mental,’ says Dowsett. ‘I went ahead and then I was just holding 17 seconds and then at the end, the last four laps were 15.5 seconds so I really ramped it up!’

The Englishman came home ahead of Rohan Dennis’s record, besting the Australian’s distance by 446m– almost two full lengths of the track.

Not that Dowsett was satisfied with his efforts. ‘I didn’t quite crack 53km,’ he shrugs. ‘Which was really frustrating especially as there was so much more.’

Can do better

Riders attempting the record are forbidden from having a ride computer with them to check their efforts, and Dowsett insists that he could have gone much faster and therefore further.

‘In training, I’d done between 400-420 watts, which was what I was expecting to hold on the attempt…’ he takes a pause before adding, ‘358 watts. That was my average when I did the Hour.

‘Out of everything we did for my preparation of the hour, the easiest effort I did was the actual hour itself.’

He shakes his head in disbelief. If Dowsett had held a 410-watt average that day – as he insists he was capable of – he is convinced he would have broken the 55km mark.

Ironically, that was the target distance Sir Bradley Wiggins set himself when he attempted the record just a month after Dowsett.

In the end, Wiggins fell short of his target but still beat Dowsett’s record by 2.63km.

Second bite

So will we see Alex Dowsett, having another crack at the auspicious Hour Record for a second time?

‘Definitely. For me, knowing that I put all that work in without demonstrating what I’m actually capable of has made me more determined than ever. Of course I will do it again.’

To break the World Hour Record once in a lifetime is an astounding achievement for any cyclist.

Were Dowsett to manage it a second time, however, he’d rightly be comparable to two of Britain’s greatest cycling legends, Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree. Rare company indeed.

It’s a hell of an ask but we at BikesEtc certainly wouldn’t bet against it.

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