Words by Sophie Smith | Photos by SWpix.com/Cor Vos
Alex Dowsett has made a case for the experienced riders in the WorldTour peloton as “scary, scary good” youth continue to clean up at races in what has generally been a “tough” year.
Dowsett, at 32, is the oldest rider to have won a stage of the 2020 Giro d’Italia so far, following his solo victory on stage eight that spoke as much to his 10 years of experience in cycling’s top tier as it did to his natural skills. With the exception of Diego Ulissi, 31, all the other stage winners in the first week were under 30, this following a Tour de France that a 22-year-old won.
“Young riders are becoming very fashionable and don’t get me wrong, they are phenomenal, like scary, scary good, but, you know, there’s something to be said for having that experience,” Dowsett saidon Monday’s first rest day.
The off-contract Briton hadn’t earmarked stage eight but how he and Israel Start-Up Nation teammate Mathias Brandle rode it after making the main breakaway, which Dowsett with 18.3km to go attacked from to win, was smart and calculated as opposed to off raw ability.
“From the minute we got into the breakaway we were both sort of already playing the others to our advantage, just with how we were sat on the bike, with what we were doing on the climb,” Dowsett said.
“We knew we were the weaker climbers, so on the climb we’d do longer pulls on the front and ride at a pace we wanted to ride at rather than the pace the climbers were setting because it was a bit uncomfortable.
“On the flat, we were just going fast because we both knew, from a time trialing background, how to get aero and do a higher speed with less watts, to let the others think that we were going far too hard and burning some candles, but actually, we were probably both working less than the other boys.
“Then at the end, the numbers for the last 18km were not superhuman at all but I got very low, I got very tucked in and I was going pretty fast.”
Dowsett, whose partner, Chanel, is expecting their first child in January, had a lot resting on his shoulders as he approached the finish line and his team’s first Grand Tour victory, also cautious of a dog that had escaped onto the course.
“As I was getting nearer, as I’m doing the maths in my head, I’m kind of working out how fast they need to go behind to catch me. When it got to 2km to go that was when I was like, ‘This is job done’. And then there was the dog,” he laughed.
“I just remember thinking the dog is on the left, so I’m going to go right but knowing 2020 that dog is going to bolt to the right and cause all sort of carnage and that would be the definition of 2020.
“But then after it, it’s just sort of disbelief cause I time trial; That’s how 99 per cent of my victories have been attained and being able to utilise that in a road race and actually come away with the win, there is nothing quite like it. I think maybe being a bit older and wiser and having a very good director in my ear and a very good teammate with me made those choices of when to play those cards a lot easier and with a lot more confidence.”
The win was Dowsett’s career second at the Giro and a relief in a contract year where racing has been significantly disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is quite interesting that there is still no surprises in the races; the winners are winning and no matter how everyone has approached lockdown everyone’s in a similar place to what they would have been,” he said.
“It was interesting to see how different athletes approached lockdown. Some guys trained harder, some guys, like, were sticking in 30-plus hour weeks on the turbo trainer, which is … special. I think the majority of us ticked over, did what was sufficient, then when it was time to start ramping it up again, we would, and we were in a good place for it. And then there was the guys that just put the bike away and did nothing for six weeks.”
The time trial specialist, who has also worked as a lead-out man since supporting Marcel Kittel at Katusha, faces an uncertain future in what is a “difficult” transfer market that he can only hope will favour experience, or at least results, over what’s apparently fashionable.
Dowsett’s agent, Altus Sports Management boss Gary McQuaid, believes the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected transfers, estimating up to 70 riders who competed at the Binckbank Tour earlier this month still don’t have contracts for 2021.
“It’s been very difficult and it’s a market for the teams. Some teams are holding tight and a lot of teams are full,” McQuaid said.
“It’s that year where talent and potential aren’t really being signed. It’s a fickle sport where a lot of the time a rider, it’s his last four or five weeks of results that get things across the line and it is going to be a difficult year again next year.
“Hopefully, we can see a season that isn’t drastically affected by COVID-19, like 2020 was, and we can return to some form of normality, in riders getting to race every month and a proper season lengthwise as well, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that that situation doesn’t materialise.
“For sure there’s a cloud hanging over things … you’ve kind of got to roll with the punches and it’s hard to explain that to the riders.”
That cloud was hanging low over the Giro on Tuesday morning after Mitchelton-Scott withdrew from the race due to four staff members testing positive to COVID-19, days after Simon Yates left after being diagnosed. Sunweb’s Michael Matthews also tested positive, is asymptomatic, and isolating in a hotel in Italy. Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk is out with the virus too.
Dowsett said his win, which he credited to teamwork, had lifted morale and he hoped that would create more momentum in the second week of the Giro, which features a time trial on stage 14.
“I’m a father to be with a bit of an uncertain future but I think, looking at it positively, two days ago, stage eight, would not have hurt at all and hopefully something good will come out of it,” he said.