Tuesday 21 August 2018

I genuinely believe that track cycling is 100pc clean – Downey

Rising star hopes to follow in his father's footsteps on the Olympic stage

Mark Downey aims for more success next year after winning Track World Cup silverware in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Mark Downey aims for more success next year after winning Track World Cup silverware in 2017. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

For Mark Downey, the last year can be condensed into a series of numbers that illustrate the chaos - and commitment - of his life as a professional cyclist.

Seventy-six days of racing, just three weeks at home, one European bronze medal, two wins at Track World Cups - and all at just 21 years of age, which adds up to a guy with the world of cycling at his feet.

Mark Downey with his father Seamus, who competed at the 1984 Olympics, pictured at this week’s Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards. Photo: Sportsfile
Mark Downey with his father Seamus, who competed at the 1984 Olympics, pictured at this week’s Irish Independent Sportstar of the Year awards. Photo: Sportsfile

But for all his achievements, a number that rankles as he casts his eye over 2017 is an imperfect 10 - the place Downey finished in the points race at the Track Cycling World Championships in Hong Kong.

"It was one race too many," he says. "Mentally the wheels fell off the cart, but it was a year I'll remember, for sure."

The problem for Downey was that his success on the World Cup circuit in the months before made him a marked man in Hong Kong, one of the gold-medal favourites whose every move was followed during the 160-lap race.

"I never had that privilege before," he says. "It was great going in (as a favourite), but it was a nuisance in the race."

Later in the week Downey and Irish team-mate Felix English finished an impressive sixth in the Madison event, but leaving Hong Kong he couldn't shake the feeling that he had left a medal behind.

Injustice

To get hung up on that, however, is to do his year an injustice, for it was one where Downey proved himself capable of delivering the success that became a distant memory for Irish track cycling since the retirement of Martyn Irvine, a world champion in 2013.

"We're in a really good place," says Downey. "Martyn Irvine gave inspiration to me and said, 'if I can do it, we all can do it'. He was just a normal man from Newtownards who showed that if you have the dedication, you can do anything."

Downey grew up about 25 miles south-west of Irvine in Dromore, Co. Down, an area he describes playfully as "the back ass of nowhere".

His calibre as a cyclist was the result of both nature and nurture: his father Seamus was an international racer who competed for Ireland at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, while his older brother Sean spent three years riding professionally for Sean Kelly's An Post team before a crash derailed his career.

Last year Downey spent the summer months riding for an amateur U-23 road team, but 2018 will bring a step up in class as he recently signed a professional contract with Bradley Wiggins' team, along with fellow Banbridge rider Matthew Teggart.

For the coming months, his base will be Majorca, where Downey is overseen by Cycling Ireland's technical director Brian Nugent and track coach David Muntaner, a former world champion from Spain.

"It's so nice with the sun and hills," says Downey. "It makes you want to ride your bike."

Given the absence of a velodrome back home, basing himself abroad is the only viable option for Downey, though planning permission has been granted to build such a facility in the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown.

"I'll not believe it until I'm inside it," says Downey with a laugh. "I don't know if it'll benefit me, but maybe the next generation."

His 2018 campaign will kick off with a six-day race in Berlin, which he hopes will sharpen his form ahead of the Track Cycling World Championships in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, at the end of February.

"It's the first big thing on the hit-list," he says.

In recent weeks Downey's sport has again been in the news for all the wrong reasons, with the revelation that Chris Froome failed a drugs test during the Vuelta a Espana, but most in cycling believe the tide is turning - however slowly - towards a better era.

Given the imminent step up in class that awaits Downey on the road next summer, it seems fair to ask if he's happier to arrive in the professional ranks now rather than riding in a previous generation.

"We had a bad few years with the Lance Armstrong thing, but we've got past that now," he says.

"We're on the road for the better."

And as for track cycling, which has had comparatively few positive tests, does Downey believe he's competing on equal terms?

"I think it's 100pc clean now and I genuinely believe that," he says.

"Being at that elite level in track cycling, there's so much testing. I think I've been tested 15 times this year by Sport Ireland, and after every World Cup I was straight in (to doping control). I don't think there's anybody who could dodge that and that's why I believe it's 100pc clean."

The track will remain Downey's primary focus in the years ahead, with the path to Tokyo 2020 likely to be traversed in the Madison.

If he gets there, it would put him at an Olympic Games 36 years after his father, and although Downey is thankful to his old man for igniting his love for the sport, he also knows that the key ingredient in his success has been his own desire.

"I'm a self-motivator and I have an inner drive that makes me stand out a wee bit," he says. "If it's meant to be, it's up to me."

Mark Downey was one of 12 Irish athletes to be awarded an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, which will see him receive $625 per month in the build-up to the Tokyo Games in 2020 and up to $5,000 to assist with travel costs to competitions.

Irish Independent

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