Interview: Russell Downing on British cycle sport's newest team, NFTO
Latest challenge excites national criterium champion
As a much-travelled former national road race champion, an inaugural member of Team Sky – the first British rider to win an individual stage for them – and current national criterium champion, Russell Downing has been there, done that.
But despite his lengthy and successful career, the 35-year-old Yorkshireman is still relishing the prospect of his newest challenge having signed for new British continental team NFTO Racing for 2014.
Russell, and older brother Dean, will both ride for the Hereford-based team next year as part of a roster also boasting ex-BMC Racing man Adam Blythe and Jonathan Mould from the now-defunct Tour Series champions Team UK Youth.
And Russell admits the prospect of riding with Dean – with whom he will also share roles off the bike – was too good to turn down.
“I’m pretty close to my brother and I think it will be a great time to finish together in the same team," he told RCUK.
“One big key factor in joining NFTO was coming back to ride in the UK with my brother. We’ve not raced together since 2006.
I'm pretty close to my brother and I think it will be a great time to finish together in the same team
“I’ve had meetings with the owner, John Wood, through Deano and he’s told me lots of the plans – it’s all really exciting and an exciting challenge too.
“I think myself and Deano work really well together as a pairing both on the bike and off it. Dean’s really good with the admin and nailing things down, while I’m quite an ideas and hands-on sort of guy.
“Me, Dean and John can work really well in this team I would have thought."
Also on board is former Team Sky directeur sportif Sean Yates, who masterminded Sir Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France win in 2012.
Downing has worked with Yates several times throughout his career at Linda McCartney racing team, the short-lived iTeamNova and, most recently at Sky, and he believes the acquisition of the 53-year-old will be a big step in driving NFTO forward.
“It’s very important to me to be working with Sean Yates again," said Downing. “I go back a hell of a long way with him.
“He was my director when I became the first British rider to win an individual race for Sky at the Criterium International.
“He was there with me then, he believed in me and he gave me the confidence to go and win that sprinters stage. It was great.
Sean Yates' name speaks volumes. The knowledge and everything behind him is going to be great and it's only going to make the team grow in stature
“It’s going to be good to be working with him. Over the last couple of years I’ve still communicated with him. To have that sort of influence in the team it’s going to be exciting times.
“I think Sean’s name speaks volumes. The knowledge and everything behind Sean is going to be great and I think it’s only going to make the team grow in stature.
“We’ve signed some great riders – Adam Blythe for example – but we can’t have all these great riders without someone telling us what to do.
“John Wood, Sean Yates and myself and Dean – we can really take this thing forward I think."
With such a strong backing and a roster of both established and upcoming riders, Downing believes the team will be challengers on the road in their first year.
He said: “It’s a bit of both getting established and looking for results. You can say we’re going to go in there all guns blazing, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that but the thing is I think the team has grown gradually.
“It’s not like we’ve come from nowhere and all of a sudden it’s a pro team. John Wood’s done some really great things with Hereford cycling down there, he’s been with NFTO for two years.
“I think it shows what sort of a guy he is that some of the riders for next year have come across from what was an amateur team and now become professional.
It's going to be a great mix of riders so if we can all gel together, it's got great ambition and a great look
“I think it will step up a level for another year, and then hopefully step up an even bigger level in 2015."
He added: “We’ve got riders who have been at the top, been in the middle and been in the lower ranks. It’s going to be a great mix so if we can all gel together, it’s got great ambition and a great look.
“British Cycling has some great programmes now which we have to fully commit to as we’re a British-based team.
“Hopefully that will go in our favour to maybe get a start at the Tour of Britain and London Classic and the Tour Series will be a key part of our year.
“Obviously I’ll have the national champion's jersey on show there and we’ve got some great crit riders, proven and unproven – there are some guys who can probably ride crits that just haven’t done so yet. It’s looking good."
And Downing also believes it is a great time to be riding on the UK scene, with domestic racing set for another makeover next year.
“The UK scene is pretty good now," he said. “It’s having a revamp for next year too – there’s more UCI races and they’re going to change it a little bit with the change to what was the Premier Calendar.
“That will be exciting because you won’t be fully bogged down in road racing or wearing yourself out in the crits – it’s very exciting to be honest and I’m looking forward to getting ready and getting training again now.
“I just want to race my bike more. At the end of the year my programme wasn’t the best but that’s what happens in a bigger team.
I think the rise of British Cycling is great - I wish I was ten years younger so I could get some more of it!
“You get your opportunities but then everybody has to have the same bite of the apple. Next year’s looking good."
He also hopes NFTO can become a team for younger riders to look up to as a realistic step on the ladder as they bid to reach World Tour level.
“I think the rise of British Cycling is great – I wish I was ten years younger so I could get some more of it!
“British Cycling needs someone in the middle. Everyone looks up to Team Sky and says ‘I want to ride for Team Sky one day’ but there needs to be something in the middle, so people can look and say ‘I’m going to go from club level and be in a big British pro team’.
“The likes of Raleigh and Rapha-Condor JLT are big teams that people do really look up to so it’s going to be nice to be part of NFTO and have people looking and wanting to get into your team. It’s definitely exciting times."