Russell Downing wins major UCI race in Belgium
Story posted July 28 | See Team Sky Website for more
Team Sky's Russell Downing produced a storming late kick to win the final stage of the Hors Category UCI race, the Tour of Wallonie and also secured the overall victory in the process. The Yorkshireman was guided into position brilliantly by Mathew Hayman as the peloton hurtled into Lontzen and then powered along the closing straight to take a narrow sprint win ahead of Stefan van Dijk (Verandas Willems).
That performance catapulted Downing from fifth to first in the general classification and ensured he ended the race with a two-second advantage over Marco Marcato (Vacansoleil). Laurent Mangel (Saur-Sojasun) was a further second adrift in third. The result was Downing's second victory of the season and was all the more impressive given the fact that only three Team Sky riders completed the race.
Kurt-Asle Arvesen had been feeling under the weather at the start of the day so it was left to Downing, Hayman and Nicolas Portal to fly the Team Sky flag as they rolled out of Chaudfontaine. The trio remained in the bunch as a number of riders tried their hands off the front in the early stages, but over 50km had been covered before Andy Cappelle (Conservatories Willems) and Julien Berard (Ag2r) eventually made it away.
That duo temporarily held a lead of four minutes on the pack but were hauled back soon after their first crossing of the finish line. Further attacks would come thick and fast on that final 43.1km loop and Portal and Hayman were both present at the head of the bunch after 12 new riders had worked themselves clear.
That threat was quickly annulled and four further riders would also attack before they made it back into Lontzen. The peloton was back together though in the final 4km and it was then that Hayman jostled Downing into contention. The Australian was on the front as they passed under the flame rouge and he peeled away on the long drag up to the finish line and allowed Downing the space to do his thing. The 31-year-old pressed on in fine style and held off a late challenge from Van Dijk before celebrating his triumph.
In the scrum which followed, sports director Steven de Jongh told the Team Sky website "It's a super result and we couldn't have asked for any more. It was unfortunate to see Kurt have to pull out at the start of the day but we're absolutely delighted with the way things turned out with Russell. He trained really hard in the weeks leading up to the race and this is his reward. Hopefully now he will go from strength-to-strength in the weeks to come."
Talking to Russell Downing afterwards, he told British Cycling the five day race had been crazy and was pretty full on each day. “There were always been people wanting to race it and each day it got harder and harder. Yesterday (stage 4) was by far the hardest day and in the last 50k, my legs came good and I was good up the climbs. I was even starting to attack the guys who were in contention for the overall which gave me a lot of confidence.”
“We have had everything in the race including cross winds like today where the race split with so many guys wanting to race it and moves going away and then teams wanting it to stay away. We only had three men in the race today which made it hard work but we were up for it.”
Describing the finale, Russell explained “there was a break away as we hit the finishing circuit and Matt Hayman and Nicolas Portal were working with Vacansoleil to bring that back and at that point, it was rapid, lined out and where ever you were in the line you stayed. Then, with around 2k to go, I was sat 20th wheel and Nico took us up before he pulled the pin. Hayman then hit the front of the arrow at probably just under a k to go which was perfect”
It was quite a fast run in and we took it into the left hand gutter so no-one could get over us because the wind was coming from that way and then there was a guy, from Quickstep leading out Weylandt and he came under Matt as he looked behind to see where I was. So I used the Quickstep guy until I hit out at around 200 to go and it all felt pretty good after that!
“I thought if I could get the stage victory, I’d win the overall but no-one was sure after I’d crossed the line.” Asked how it felt to be on the podium wearing the Yellow jersey, Russell replied, “pretty good until the rain came down and got rid of the crowd!”
A worthy winner on a tough course
The course for the race is known for the long steep climbs, not alpine ascents but still big enough to have hurt a lot of legs in many a classic held on them. Russell says that he’d done most of the climbs either this year or in years by gone by. “I did some of them in Amstel Gold, others in Ster Electro and various others in previous races so it was good to know where everything was and also know which ones would suit me.”
The stage race was his first event back since the British Road Race Championships (end of June) where he rode himself to a standstill on a circuit not suited to his strengths. Describing how it felt to ride a bike in anger again after a month, he says “my legs got better and better each day. On the first day, it was like, whoa, this hurts and I had to dig deep and blow the cob webs off.”
Russell’s performance shows a rider doesn’t have to hammer themselves in races all the time to prepare for an event. At least, not the Fonz. His training prior to the race in Belgium included ten days off really easy post nationals and he then started two weeks of solid ‘Rus Downing’ training; five hours, five more hours, another five hours…
What ever his training entails, it obviously works well for Russell and he went onto to explain how the Peak District was perfect for him to get the required climbing into his legs to tackle the ones in Belgium. “As soon as we get into the Peak District, there are similar climbs to the ones we did today. There were points in the race today when it was going up and up and up to the highest point in Belgium, which isn’t that high, before you go down into a town and then up a steep climb. It’s a parcours that does suit me.”
A parcours similar to the finale in Dublin last year where he won the overall for the Tour of Ireland, a ride that clinched his place with Team Sky in 2010. When asked did he feel there was a similarity between the races, Russell replied “I was thinking about the similarity with Ireland last year on stage 4 at the end when it was quite lumpy and the attacks were going. I was having to get stuck in chasing them or countering moves and it was real proper racing!”
“The final climb on that stage was really quite steep, like 700 metres at a steep percentage and that was with 2k to go. It was also where I got away across the top to bridge to what was the winning move.”
With yet another pro victory in the bag to match the victory by his fellow Team Sky and Rotherham teammate Ben Swift, who won a stage race in France this year, Russell found himself after the stage being drafted into the Sky Team squad for the San Sebastian Classic in Spain. Perhaps his good form will stand him in good stead there if given a free hand.
Spain is some where that Russell would like to spend a lot more time racing as well as he admits that he’d love the chance to do a Grand Tour like the Vuelta. At the moment, it seems he’s down to do his home Tour, the Tour of Britain which is fine but Russell does seem to hanker after a Grand Tour start and we wish all the best in achieving that during the coming weeks.
1. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team 3:46:11
2. Stefan Van Dijk (Ned) Verandas Willems
3. Tony Gallopin (Fra) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne
51. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling Team
55. Nicolas Portal (Fra) Sky Professional Cycling Team
1. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team 21:50:07
2. Marco Marcato (Ita) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team 0:00:02
3. Laurent Mangel (Fra) Saur - Sojasun 0:00:03
34. Nicolas Portal (Fra) Sky Professional Cycling Team 0:00:54
49. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling Team 0:07:47
72. Sam Bewley (NZl) Team Radioshack
1. Stefan Van Dijk (Ned) Verandas Willems 59 pts
2. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team 58
3. Wouter Weylandt (Bel) Quick Step 58
1. Danilo Napolitano (Ita) Team Katusha 4:28:33
2. Wouter Weylandt (Bel) Quick Step
3. Greg Henderson (NZl) Sky Professional Cycling Team
10. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team
14. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling Team
50. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling Team
110. Nicolas Portal (Fra) Sky Professional Cycling Team 0:00:18
1. Stefan Van Dijk (Ned) Verandas Willems 4:57:02
2. Kris Boeckmans (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen - Mercator
3. Borut Bozic (Slo) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team
4. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team
10. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling Team
32. Greg Henderson (NZl) Sky Professional Cycling Team
34. Nicolas Portal (Fra) Sky Professional Cycling Team
105. Kurt-Asle Arvesen (Nor) Sky Professional Cycling Team
1. Kristof Goddaert (Bel) AG2R La Mondiale 4:31:04
2. Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Team Katusha
3. Steven Van Vooren (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen - Mercator
9. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team
19. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling Team
68. Nicolas Portal (Fra) Sky Professional Cycling Team
1. Laurent Mangel (Fra) Saur - Sojasun 4:07:30
2. Marco Marcato (Ita) Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team
3. Maxime Vantomme (Bel) Team Katusha
10. Russell Downing (GBr) Sky Professional Cycling Team
41. Nicolas Portal (Fra) Sky Professional Cycling Team 0:00:23
68. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Sky Professional Cycling Team