Russell Downing won the Stockton Velo29-Altura Grand Prix after a final lap attack saw him catch the long-time leaders and take a dramatic victory.
Downing, The 35-year-old NFTO Pro Cycling rider from Tickhill near Rotherham, attacked off the front of the bunch as they reached the end of Sunday’s race, which was round four of the British Cycling Elite Road Series.
Under leaden skies and with rain showers forecast throughout the afternoon, the race rolled out of Stockton Riverside and headed up the Durham Road to the tough, rolling 13km main circuit for 10 laps before descending back to the town for six laps of the Riverside circuit.
Velosure-Giordana’s Marcin Bialoblocki - winner of the Cycle Wiltshire Grand Prix - sat just four points behind Lincoln Grand Prix victor Yanto Barker of Raleigh, who led the teams competition. Last year’s winner Ian Wilkinson lined up alongside Barker for Raleigh – with Friday’s Crit race winner George Atkins and former track world champion Morgan Kneisky, for good measure.
On lap two of the main circuit with the race split in two with a group of around 45 riders – with representatives from all the main teams – off the front and with a 32mph plus pace the riders in the second group looked very vulnerable.
That group fragmented again – with 17 going off the front and then – in the decisive move of the race – it split again leaving six riders away. Alex Peters of Madison Genesis was third in the series and had made the break. He was joined by Matt Cronshaw of Velosure-Giordana, Hugh Wilson of NFTO, Richard Handley of Rapha Condot-JLT and the Metaltek-Kuota duo of Rhys Lloyd and Adam Martin.
As the rain started to fall, the group started to pull away – stretching the lead out to a peak of just under three and a half minutes. The rain came and went but despite the work of Team Raleigh the break stayed away.
With 60 miles on the clock the gap was down to two and a half minutes and another minute went over the following 15 miles. The peloton had the momentum but it was still going to be tough to close the lead group down as the race headed back towards Stockton.
NFTO took to the front now with Russ Downing – back to form after his early season injury – prominent on the front as the race hit the Riverside circuit. The pace finally took its toll on Lloyd and with just seven and a half miles to go he was dropped by the lead group. Teammate Zachary May almost managed to bridge across to him, but couldn’t quite make it on his own.
Peters went back to the team car for advice from Roger Hammond having had to encourage Handley to do his share of the work in the lead group which was now under a minute from the clutches of the peloton.
So, at the bell the lead was down to 35 seconds but after four hours and more than 1500m of climbing, it looked like it was going to come down to a bunch sprint between the four breakaway riders – until Russell Hampton of Athlonsport and Russell Downing of NFTO took off from the front of the peloton and rocketed up to the lead group.
They responded in time for Peters to hang on to second place between the two Russells but it was Downing, clear at the line, who took his first major win of the season – and what a win it was!
Speaking afterwards about the attack that closed down the leading group containing team mate Wilson, Downing said: “I was just policing everything, really – anything that went up to the roundabout I would just take second wheel and just keeping everything together and reeling things back.
“I think Liam Holohan went away and I went with him and I didn’t even realise we had a gap. Then Russ [Hampton] shouted and he came past that quick that I was caught a bit unaware. And then I wasn’t giving Liam a turn so I jumped with Russ - I felt a bit sorry for Liam because that was obviously doing his job.
“Then I did the same with Russ – I said ‘I’m sorry mate, I’ve got to get out the road, I can’t do a turn’ and then as we were getting close I thought ‘We’re going to catch them’ so I actually did the right thing and gave a few turns and we got across. But credit to Russ there – he more or less dragged it all the way across.”
Peters, away for so long in the breakaway, was philosophical about his second place: “For a very long time [the gap] was twenty or thirty seconds and the group was a bit hesitant and then it went out to two or three minutes, and maybe there was a little bit of lost morale behind.
“They were pegging us but not pulling us back and then it settled down because Raleigh were controlling the front of the bunch. But once you come on to the small circuit a big group can go pretty hard.”
And that trip back to the team car? “Richard Handley was sitting on the back, bluffing – saying he was tired – but I know Richard Handley, he’s a strong rider. So it was like interval training at the back – I was taking him out the back and having a few words and then getting back on.
“And then we got caught by Russ and – Russ! – they came flying past us, so I had to chase.”
1 Russ Downing (NFTO)
2 Alex Peters (Madison Genesis)
3 Russell Hampton (Athlonsport)
4 Richard Handley (Rapha Condor-JLT)
5 Rhys Lloyd (Metaltek-Kuota)
6 Matt Cronshaw (Velosure-Giordana)
7 Hugh Wilson (NFTO Pro Cycling) all same time
8 Chris Opie (Rapha Condor-JLT) at 21sec
9 Andrew Hawdon (KTM Road and Trail)
10 Graham Briggs (Rapha Condor-JLT)