Cycling: Downey hoping to keep star on rise with Rás stage win
Although he had been a prolific winner at underage and junior level for a few years previous, Sean Downey burst onto the national cycling radar when he won the prestigious Tour of Ulster stage race in 2009 at the tender age of 18.
The Dromore teenager then underlined his talent with a formidable fifth place behind Ag2r professional Nicolas Roche in his first senior national championship a few months later to claim the U-23 national title.
His results at home caught the attention of top French amateur team VC La Pomme and last year Downey joined the same club that had ushered fellow Irish riders Roche, Dan Martin, Philip Deignan and Mark Scanlon into the professional peloton.
A crash in the prestigious Ronde de L'Isarde stage race last May, though, saw Downey knocked unconscious and airlifted to hospital. Having spent over a week in bed with 14 stitches in his face and a badly broken eye socket, the youngster was faced with starting all over again.
"The crash just wrecked everything and I had to start from scratch all over again," Downey says as he stands in his father's bike shop, Downey Cycles, in Dromore. "It was really hard to get back to the form I had when I won the nationals and was going really well. I was off the bike for about six weeks.
"Lying in bed for that long, it was sort of a time to reflect on what was going on. I decided to just start from scratch again and that every day I was going to get better and better. It was hard, but in a way, it helped me to focus and wise up a bit."
His first race back with La Pomme, however, saw the frustrated youngster almost give up the sport for good when he was dropped by the peloton.
"I just pulled in, got off my bike and that was it. I rang home and told my mum and dad I'd had enough. It wasn't happening for me. I told them I was finished.
"They encouraged me to keep going, told me to wait until the next week and after that I just got better and better. Only for the support from my parents, my coach Tommy Evans and the team itself, I would have stopped."
Having returned to some semblance of form, Downey got a call to represent Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in India, where he won a bronze medal in the team pursuit.
"I had seen all the videos and media reports about the state of the place at the time and I was scared of getting sick and maybe missing the next year as well," he admits. "But I ended the season with a bronze medal and it changed my whole year. I came home a lot more positive for next year and really motivated."
Some good results in the north of France for his new Cote D'Armour amateur team and at a series of U-23 Nations Cup races while on international duty have since earned Downey a place on the Irish national team when the An Post Rás leaves Dunboyne for stage one to Portumna tomorrow.
"I was second overall in the Circuit de Menes and the club were very happy with that. It's a big U-23 race in France and a lot of the top pro teams come to watch it."
Downey lines up on the Skoda-sponsored Ireland team for the Rás alongside experienced former pro Paul Griffin, Belgian-based Peter Hawkins and first year seniors Conor Dunne and Felix English for his second attempt at the eight-day race.
"I was on the track endurance team for my first Rás in 2009. I'd never ridden a stage race over three days before but I was never out of my depth. I didn't have much experience, though, so I didn't know how to get up there at the end or how the stages would end up, but this time around I have a bit more experience and I'd like to do something."
Although his father Seamus held the yellow jersey of race leader in 1984, a stage win is the dream for young Downey this time around. "A stage win is what I'm looking for but a top-three on a stage would be great," he says. "I'll take the GC day by day. The way the Rás is ridden, the GC can change dramatically from one day to the next and you have to be very consistent."
With 38-year-old Griffin by far the elder statesman on an Irish team that contains three U-23 riders (Downey, Dunne and English), Downey admits he will be looking to the former Giant Asia pro for guidance next week.
"Paul has ridden the Rás plenty of times and he'll be like a shepherd to us," says Downey. "It's good to have somebody like that to learn from and it's definitely good to have him on the team. We have a good mix of youth and experience, and hopefully us younger lads can earn a few UCI points on stages to qualify Ireland for the world U-23 championships too, which is a big aim too."