Not many will look back on 12 months dominated by a global pandemic with any fondness, including those in the sports sector, where clubs and associations have sailed far too close to oblivion.
But some can look back with pride on the way they have navigated a path through troubled waters.
The Downing brothers from Thurcroft in Rotherham may well in time reflect on a year in which they stared adversity in the face and grew stronger because of it.
Dean and Russ Downing have been familiar names on the British cycling scene for more than two decades. They are steeped in the sport, from the days of helping out their dad Ken in his cycling shop in the pit village they grew up in, through to pro contracts on the continent, British road race titles for Russ, and a brief venture into running a team for Dean.
When organisers of the Tour de France’s visit to Yorkshire in 2014 needed some expert cycling knowledge to help them plan the routes, who did they ask? The Downings, of course.
But as Dean retired from professional cycling around that time, and Russ followed at the end of 2019, the brothers knew that if they wanted to stay in cycling, in the only industry they knew, they would best be served teaming up and trading off their name.
So Downing Cycling was born.
“We’d both been doing little different bits within the industry, both had our own little companies, but it was Russ’s idea to put our ideas together and have a brand,” explains Dean, who at 45 is the elder of the two by three years.
“That happened in summer 2017. We didn’t really do much that first year until I was looking to have my own coaching brand.”
Coaching is Dean’s strength, and for which Downing Cycling at first mention has become most synonymous. Upon retiring from racing, Dean worked with Sean Yates at TrainSharp, learning the coaching trade.He also had a year as a director-sportiff with Holdsworth Bikes, a proud Yorkshire name in cycling that survived just one year.
“The No 1 thing I’ve learned from a lot of great people down the years is just how hard work that job really is,” says Dean.
“Jon Heraty was a massive help for both of us, but I saw how hard he had to work to keep British teams on the road and then experienced it first hand with Holdsworth – it’s a massive juggling act. You never felt like you were in control, because the person with the money is. If you want to do something radical it needs approval from above. If something goes wrong, it’s your fault.”
Fingers burned, it at least helped the elder sibling narrow his focus on coaching.
“I’d learned so much under TrainSharp and was ready to branch out on my own, so that was the first thing we used Downing Cycling for,” he continues. “I took about five riders with me from TrainSharp, they were happy to have helped me. That was important for me, zero animosity.
“And I absolutely love the coaching. It’s different. I’ve built from five riders, up to 15, now up to 25, 30, and have even been able to take on another coach in Tom Stewart, another South Yorkshire rider.”
But as sport began to shut down in the Spring, right around the time the cycling season was hitting Classics season, Dean feared for the future.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was panicking in February when races were getting cancelled.Would I lose clients due to races being cancelled?” he recalled.
“Do I stick my head in the sand and worry about it, or do I put my name out there to get more clients? That extra time of not being away at races, probably eight weeks, I used wisely and took on more riders.
“They started coming on board in April because people need to be training and needed help.
“It’s a full-time job, coaching every day, taking phone calls, setting bespoke training programmes. This year has been tough, but generally the client base has grown, whether they’re young or old, male or female, pro or amateur. That’s the enjoyment for me, the mix.”
That is where Russ has played his part, bringing in more riders by taking the Downing Cycling brand into the online sphere.
Digital products like Zwift and Peloton have provided an outlet for cyclists of all talents by giving them a chance to race from the comfort of their own homes.
It has been such a success that the e-sports cycling world championships were held earlier this month. Russ was at the very vanguard of the movement.
“I was one of the first guys to have a go with Zwift and I even remember getting a bit of ribbing about it”, the 2005 British road race champion recalls.
“A guy asked me to give it a bit of a nudge, this is back in 2014.
“And then lockdown came. Nobody was meeting up, your chain gang meets were no more than six people.
“So I came up with the idea to get together online. We were doing Saturday mornings as a coaching initiative under the Downing coaching arm, and from that Doncaster Chain Gang was formed. That’s been a big part of my involvement. We have people from all over the world coming online on Tuesday and Thursday nights, everyone knows it’s Russ, and we broadcast it on YouTube.”
Sponsors and even a commentator have come on board as the online community grew to 1,300 riders, with 300 on a ride every Tuesday and Thursday evening.
“It’s been a crazy 2020 but this has provided a lot of good for a lot of people,” says Russ.
“Start of the year, I was worried about where we were going to be able to ride our bikes? So let’s give people something to focus on with a ride twice a week. It’s opened a lot of doors for a lot of people. It’s also helped me through a tough year.”
Now there is some semblance of an international race calendar in place for 2021, will the online cycling craze fizzle out?
“It could but I won’t let it,” says Russ. “For a start, it’s given me something to focus on in lockdown. It’s a great way of attracting people to the brand. Dean has even taken on some coaching from it.”
“With Downing Cycling it’s us that are accountable,” concludes Dean.
“We’ve both got an idea of how we want to move it forward. We’re never at loggerheads. We each bring something different.
“We’ve had a fast progression over two years.”
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