Dowling: I could count hard men of Irish cycling on one hand
Mark Dowling talks like he rides, with a hard edge. One of Ireland's top amateur cyclists is blowing a hole in the suggestion that the An Post Rás has become too difficult for county riders to be competitive in. "That's an absolute joke, I don't think it's too hard at all."
Dowling, like his father Mick, the nine-time national boxing champion, doesn't pull his punches.
"The problem is the attitude in Irish cycling," he says. "I think the riders are living off the Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche hard-man attitude from way back when. I mean, I could probably count the hard men of Irish cycling on one hand. They're not up for the hard training, they're not up for the hard races. You can see that reflected in the calendar. All the races are being shortened and all the climbs are being taken out.
"By making the calendar easier all the time, it's not doing the county riders any favours. It just means they're getting on fine in the week-to-week races because there's nothing that puts them under pressure. So they think their level is okay until they actually get dropped into the Rás."
Having competed in the Rás on eight occasions, the 30-year-old knows what it takes to mix it at the business end. He has never been afraid of taking the hard road to success, in the way he trains and races. Yet the idea of stepping between the ropes, as his father did so successfully, was always intimidating. And the two-time Olympian never guided his children in that direction.
"I don't think I'd be tough enough for boxing," Dowling admits with a smile. "Now and then I go to a fight and see the two guys in the ring, you see the pressure that they're under, there's no excuses, no way out, that pressure is enormous. In cycling there's 101 excuses that you have. But I dunno, it's just something I never got into. I think my dad actually didn't really want us boxing. He just said it wouldn't be a sport he wanted his own children doing."
However, sport was their whole life growing up. While his father was the ring master, mother Emily ran cross-country for Ireland and won the 1981 Dublin marathon, the family sport shop in Terenure was at the centre of it all. He may not have followed the same path as his parents, but the dedication and commitment to sport was ingrained in Mark, his younger brother Stephen, and sisters Lisa and Julie. It's still their life and their business. Working within the family environment has allowed the Strata3-VeloRevolution rider "all the time in the world to train". He knows he's in a privileged position.
"I'd probably be known as one of the harder trainers out there. I just love the graft. I think, growing up in the family I grew up in, it was kinda just drilled into ya as a kid. It was all about relentless training. Just relentless pressure, just pushing through the fatigue. It's not something I think about too much. I never find it hard to motivate myself."
Dowling will have plenty of drive to make an impression when the Rás rolls out from the ceremonial start in Dublin Castle today. Although he's still smarting from his third-place finish in last Sunday's Shay Elliott, one of the few big domestic titles missing from his list of honours. He's driven by the losses more than the victories.
At least he knows he has the form to match his experience to ruffle the feathers of the full-time continental riders that have flown in, even if this year's route doesn't quite suit his climbing abilities.
"Instead of targeting stages, I'll probably be better off from day one racing really aggressively. I'll try something on the first day, there's only one little drag but it would be nice to try and pick up the climber's jersey, because you'd hold onto it for a few days.
"It's just so hard to tell, it's such an unpredictable race, but I won't be just hanging around for the climbs at the end of the race. I'll be trying everything, breakaways, bunch sprints . . . I'll be trying absolutely everything, I won't be hanging back for one or two days in Donegal."
You sense Dowling rarely hangs back. After this week, the national championships will be his primary focus. There's always the next challenge to relentlessly pursue. This is the life he loves.
"You see so much about people being unhappy in jobs or in life in general. But at the moment, and in the last few years, I've lived a great life through sport. So I'm super happy. I won't change that for anything. I'll just keep doing what I'm doing."
Sunday Indo Sport