Few riders would chose the 2011 Giro d’Italia as the race in which to make their Grand Tour debut, but a parcours lauded by some as one for heroes, criticised by others as unnecessarily brutal, and universally acknowledged as among the hardest in the then 102-year history of the race, awaited Russell Downing last year.
After almost a lifetime dreaming of testing himself on the corsa rosa, the Yorkshireman rolled out in the colours of Team Sky on May 7 2011 for 21 stages that would feature 40 categorised climbs, including six summit finishes, among them ascents of the Zoncolan, the Passo Giau, and the Colle delle Finestre.
From his earliest days as a cyclist, the Giro was the Grand Tour Downing wanted to ride. “It seemed so colourful and happy,” he recalled, “and then two weeks in, I was wondering what I had let myself in for.”
In the final week, with almost 2680 kilometres already in his legs, Downing would experience the huge demands made by the Giro for comparatively modest reward and the painful and immediate consequence of error on its high-speed descents.
The eighteenth stage from Morbegno to San Pellegrino Terme found Downing in a group of 15 riders that would remain ahead of the peloton to the finish; the last of the 2011 race to do so. He remembers being among the small group of riders who crested the final climb of the day, an eight kilometre ascent of the Ganda, ahead of the pursuing bunch. “I got over that in fifth or sixth, but guys came over from the back and I just didn’t quite make the front group at the finish, which was hard, but a top 10 finish on a stage like that was not bad going.”
A rude awakening from fresh memories of a ‘great day’ in the Giro came the following day, with a crash on the nineteenth stage from Bergamo to Macugnaga. Part of a group chasing hard on a descent to get back on to the back of the peloton, Downing found himself on the outside of two riders through a tight turn.
“A couple of guys got a corner wrong and forced me off the road; the corner tightened up even more, and I had no chance to brake. I just went straight on over the edge; where I was going, I wasn’t sure,” he recalls.
“The next thing I remember was hitting a tree, which stopped m in my tracks and totally took the breath out of me. I didn’t know what I had done.
“I could see my bike further down. The natural instinct was to get my bike, but the mechanic said, ‘No, you just get back up here.’ I remember getting to the top of the hill and coughing up a lung. It was immense pain. Then I crashed again two corners down because I’d broken my shoe cleats. I overshot a corner trying to get back on the bunch,” he said.
Instinct and adrenalin can be called upon to recover from a first crash; only will power will suffice to climb back on a second time. “It was the nineteenth day of the Giro and I wanted to finish, so I was going to do everything I could to try and finish it. I managed to do that with the help of a couple of teammates.” he says, identifying Dario Cioni as one who “really helped me out over the climbs.”
Spectators must wonder what drives a badly injured rider to climb back on his bike when the effects of a first crash cause a second. To abandon after such misfortune would be entirely understandable and without dishonor. But riders like Downing don’t abandon; to have done so, he says, would have “destroyed” him, and so with chest injuries he confesses left him feeling the following morning as if he had been “run over by a train”, he climbed back on his back and pedaled for Macugnaga, his thoughts focussed on rejoining the group.
“I’m the type of rider that if I do crash anywhere it’s a case of, ‘Put me back on my bike,’” he says. “I wanted to finish my first Giro, plus that’s the sort of guy I am: I don’t like to quit anything, really.”
“It was brutal,” Downing recalls of his first day in the mountains, “and it wasn’t just me in my first Grand Tour who thought it was brutal.” He remembers “big guys”, GC contenders, lined up for hours, ready to attack, left looking at each other as a breakaway disappeared. “I’d think, ‘well, it wasn’t just me then.’”
The stage on which he encountered the first big mountain of the race escapes him (“it was just numbers and miles with the Giro”) but he recalls being among those riders shed from the back of the peloton early on the climb. “I was maybe the tenth person to go out the back. It was really hard and at that point there were people who had gone home already. I thought: ‘I’m in trouble here.’”
Forcing himself into a rhythm, he fell in alongside QuickStep’s Francesco Chicci, but a rider from BMC slid from the back of the straggling group and failed to make the time cut. “Memories like that made me think, ‘This is pretty hard.’” But after two days, Downing found his climbing legs and a groove in which he would remain throughout his daily trial in the mountains. “After the first couple of days, I was climbing comfortably in the Grupetto and you realised there were guys around you who knew what they were doing and could work out the time cut.”
Despite his extraordinary efforts in the Giro, Downing’s contract with Team Sky was not renewed, and he has continued his career with Endura Racing, scoring four victories already this season, in domestic and international races. The victories, he says, are in part the result of his efforts in Italy last May, he says.
“I can suffer as a bike rider and still get through, but at the Giro last year, I learned to suffer at a whole new level. This year, it’s brought me on that extra per cent. Now I can dig a bit deeper and have got a bigger engine.”