Russell Downing (NFTO), fresh from finishing fourth at the Commonwealth Games with Team England, enters Sunday’s RideLondon in buoyant mood after coming back strongly from injury.
The former British champion, 35, signed for NFTO this season alongside brother Dean with the aim of competing in the Tour Series – where he was to wear the National Criterium Champion’s jersey.
A crash at the Lincoln Grand Prix saw him miss nearly a month of action however, but after coming back strong the Yorkshire-born rider is raring to go in the capital – and believes the British UCI Continental teams are more than capable of mixing it with the WorldTour riders.
“I think NFTO, or another domestic team, can win,” he told RCUK. “Obviously I was up there at the Commonwealth Games in the front group and there were plenty of WorldTour riders.
“I was mixing it with them, not just sitting on all the way around. I think we’ll be definitely in there.
“The standard of UK racing now has really gone a lot higher in the last couple of years. At the end of the day, everybody’s human and it’s a bike race – anything can happen.”
I was mixing it in the front at the Commonwealth Games road race, not just sitting on all the way around. I think NFTO, or another domestic team, can win RideLondon.
Downing was one of just 12 riders to finish the Commonwealth Games road race in Glasgow, which was won by Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas (Wales).
It was a significant result for a rider who was only called up to represent Team England just days before as a late replacement.
And Downing admitted the race, which became more of a war of attrition in inclement conditions, is among the toughest he has done during his illustrious career.
“It was a tough old race,” he said. “The race was hard, the conditions were hard so it just sort of added to it really. It was definitely a pretty tough day.
“But it was good. I was chuffed to get the call-up because when they picked the team it was just after the Lincoln Grand Prix where I crashed and broke my collar bone so, while I was on the longlist for the last couple of years, things didn’t go to plan.
“So to get the call was really good. I’ve just started to get into a bit of shape anyway so it was nice – and it was a good call!”
Since returning from injury, Downing has also won the Stockton Grand Prix and leads the British Cycling Grand Prix Series after two more podium places in the following races.
But the former Team Sky man, who heads a strong NFTO squad for RideLondon alongside former BMC Racing man Adam Blyth, admitted it was a difficult injury to come back from – not least because of the timing of it.
To crash out two days before the Tour Series was pretty gutting. To be honest, I didn’t even feel like riding my bike for a week I was that bad.
“It was quite hard to get back,” he said. “Obviously my season had been based around the Tour Series.
“That was one of the reasons I came back to the UK, to wear the national champion’s jersey and race alongside my brother in that series.
“To crash out two days before it was pretty gutting. Without blowing my own trumpet I thought I stayed pretty strong considering. It was a blow but I just did what I had to do.
“To be honest, I didn’t even feel like riding my bike for a week I was that bad. Normally I’d be like ‘I’m alright’ but for a week I was really hurting.
“It was quite a bad break and I did my ribs just behind it too so there was a fair old pain going down. Hopefully it’s all behind me now though.”
Downing’s form since coming back certainly suggests the injury is now firmly a thing of the past, having ridden through the pain barrier to return to race fitness.
But reflecting on his season-to-date, it is with mixed feelings with which he currently looks back on his debut year in NFTO colours.
“It’s been quite a strange season because I missed four weeks of the season that are quite important,” he admitted.
It’s been a mixed year up to now. I’ve had to get my head back on and now I’m in full flight ready for the second half of the year.
“I was stuck at home while the lads were away racing, and while I didn’t watch every single one on TV the ones I did watch I just wanted to be out there.
“It’s been a bit of a mixed year up to now after a year of preparing for the Tour Series and not being able to ride it. I’ve had to get my head back on and now I’m in full flight ready for the second half of the year.”
That second part of the year, of course, kicks off with RideLondon on a course Downing has previously ridden on for Team England in the 2011 Olympic test event.
Though riding in English colours, Downing and his team-mates’ pace-setting on the front of the bunch played a big part in helping the Great Britain team to deliver Mark Cavendish to victory.
Downing himself went on to finish 18th – one of eight British riders to finish inside the top 20.
And with good memories of a course well-suited to him, with his Commonwealth Games performance showing he is more than capable on undulating terrain, Downing is relishing his return to London and the Surrey hills.
“I’m hoping for a good result at RideLondon,” he admitted. “I know this kind of race suits me. The first time we did it was in the Olympic test event and I rode for Team England and I was right there at the finish.
“I want a good result there. Looking at these couple of weeks, the Commonwealth Games were good and RideLondon has been a big goal of mine to ride and then continue on to hopefully get a ride in the Tour of Britain.
“It’s a good course. It’s a challenging course and I think it’s great. The spectators will really be going to town and will be coming out and making plenty of noise so it will be really nice.”