World Cup winner Mark Downey determined to make an impression
SIX laps from the finish, Mark Downey knew he was in with a sniff.
His coach - keen to keep the pressure off the 20-year-old who was going into his first UCI World Cup - had told him to target a top 10 finish. But that wasn’t how the Dromore speedster saw it - he wanted a medal.
The stellar field jostling for position in the points race included his cycling hero Kenny de Ketele - Downey used to have a picture of him as the screensaver on his phone - and five-time world champion Morgan Kneisky.
But when the former Banbridge CC rider kicked for home he left them trailing in his wake as he powered around the track in Apeldoorn, Holland.
He crossed the line after 120 laps to win the final sprint and take the 10 points that left him with a total of 18 and the gold medal. His win emulated the achievement of Martin Irvine, the only other Irish cyclist to win gold at the World Cup.
The Newtownards powerhouse won the scratch race event and went on to win the World Championship later that year and Downey wants to match that in April in Hong Kong and then chase his dream of getting a pro contract and a ride in the Tour de France.
“I know that the World Cup is going to be a hard one to beat in my career,” he said.
“I don’t get pressure from everybody else, I just get it from myself because I really want to drive on. I’m a driven person. People ask me: ‘Why do you make these statements like: ‘I want to win this, I want to win that?’
“It’s like Connor McGregor says: ‘If you say it enough, you start to believe it’ and that’s the way I would look at it. When you say something so much in your head then there’s no way you can look past it. That’s the mentality I have.
“Cycling is such a technical and tactical sport and I think it comes down to what’s in your head more than your legs sometimes.”
He’s driven and ambitious, but not arrogant or cocky and Downey admits that operating among his cycling heroes has taken a bit of getting used to.
“Whenever I’m in the track centre I’m near enough scared to look at those guys,” he said.
“I think ‘Jesus, I don’t want to look at him in case I make awkward eye contact with him’. But when I see them in race I just see them like I’m racing anybody else - that’s the way you have to look at it because if you take that attitude into the race you’re not going to compete with them. My attitude changes when the adrenalin starts flowing.”
His competitive streak is no surprise because Downey comes from thoroughbred cycling stock. Along with Paul Kimmage and Martin Earley his dad Seamus represented Ireland in the road race at the LA Olympic Games in 1984, while elder brother Sean was a bronze medal winner at the Commonwealth Games in 2010.
Their experiences helped to smooth the road a little for Mark when he deferred going to St Mary’s University College and signed for VC Touchy in France.
“I knew that what I was going into wasn’t what I watched on the TV,” he said.
“When you watch the Tour de France you’re thinking: ‘That’s great, the boys racing through France and thousands of people out cheering them on.’ But I can tell you that there were 150 or 200 days of my working year when there’s nobody out standing on the roads.
“You’re out in rain or snow or whatever and you put your work in and go home and get your food, take a sleep, wake up and get more food and then do your emails and then off to bed. It’s about hard work and determination and that’s the way you have to go about it.”
His road racing season with VC Touchy began quietly. Downey admits he just wanted to “learn, learn, learn” and gradually he found his feet and switched from taking part to competing.
“I was getting a hiding,” he said.
“But I started to get my act together when the Ras was coming up, I rode the Ras and everybody was blown away with me because I’d only been away a few months but I was able to compete and finish 13th in my first stab at it. I headed back to France for a five-day race and ended up winning the final stage - it was 175km, so that was pretty huge.”
He followed up that breakthrough by taking silver in the Men’s U23 Points Race at the U23 European Championships in Italy. After that he was brought back down to earth - as young athletes are - with disappointment at the European Road Racing championships.
With scouts from the world’s top professional teams looking on, he wanted another medal but began the final sprint from a poor position and finished 14th.
There was short-term disappointment, but the experience may turn out to be a blessing: “I’d put a huge amount of work in so I was bitterly disappointed but I had myself to blame in the finish,” he said.
“I lost my position - I was 35th with 500m to go and I was able to jump 20 people before the line in the uphill sprint. I just thought: If I had started in 15th where could I have ended up?
“The pro teams - the teams that ride the Tour de France - are always looking at the U23 European and world championships and the first three are going straight up [to pro] next year.
“I was 14th, but it’s a nice stepping stone because I have two more years left at that level so I’m on track I think. I sat down with one of the recruitment guys from the FDJ team and said ‘what do I need to get onto this team next year?’ He said: ‘You’ve won once and we need to see you repeat that performance’.
“So I said: ‘Okay, I need four wins to go there next year’. So, in my head, my goal is the world championship next year and then I’ll start chasing the dream of that pro tour contract.”
Chasing that dream means more air miles than road miles. After a short spell at home in county Down, Downey is off to Geneva for a race next week, then Cali, Columbia and maybe Los Angeles the week after that.
“At times it’s tough,” he says.
“I’m a bit of a home bird, but it’s nice when you come home and you’ve done something. Everybody says I’m on a bit of a roll, but I’ve been putting the work in.
“I’ve been keeping on top of things and everything is starting to fall into place. I didn’t expect all of these results to come in one year and to get up there with some of these big names is hard to believe.”