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Dublin: 20 °C Saturday 21 July, 2018

Mark Downey: the 20-year-old Irishman whose gold rush could see him become world champion

The Down native has won three gold medals at the last three World Cup events.

Mark Downey after yet another World Cup gold.
Mark Downey after yet another World Cup gold.
Image: Mark Downey/Twitter

THE DOWNEY FAMILY could have been born with pedals for feet.

Dad Séamus competed alongside Paul Kimmage at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, while eldest brother Sean was a professional with An Post Cycling, signing with them back in 2011.

On top of that, the family own a bicycle shop in Dromore, Co. Down.

It should come as no surprise then, that one of Mark Downey’s earliest memories involves cycling, or more specifically not being allowed cycle and sitting in the back of a car crying instead.

That desire for competition, to test himself against his peers, has not abated in the dozen or so years since, with the now 20-year-old having won three gold medals — two in points races and a silver and a gold in the Madison team event — in his last three UCI Track Cycling World Cups.

He had just finished watching his latest triumph — alongside Felix English — when The42 called this week.

“I’m just watching it back for the first time. I’ve seen clips online but this is the first time I’ve seen it all so I’m just trying to see how it all went down,” he says.

It’s a long way from tears in back of his dad’s car.

“It was really through my brother that I got into (cycling), because obviously he’d be going to races.

“I started with mountain biking when I was eight because you weren’t allowed race on the road until you were 11. When I was nine or 10, I used to go to all the races with my brother and they’d say to me ‘sorry, we can’t let you ride.’

“So I’d be crying in the car after travelling the whole way to this race and they wouldn’t let me race for 10 minutes.”

At the age of 11, Downey showed both his potential and the competitive edge that has him very much in the running for a Track World Championship gold medal and the rainbow jersey that goes with it.

At the Irish Championships that year, he won the gold in the time trial and criterium but only came second in the road race. In an interview with Cycling Ireland he points to a picture of him trailing in behind Shane O’Hara:

From then on, seeing this picture made me strive to do my best and become stronger in my age category.”

While he continued on the road, he also took up track cycling quite young at Orangefield and was soon taking a place in the Irish team.

“The first time I got into the Irish team was just after the Junior Tour at track camp in Belgium and then I took part in the Junior World Championships in Glasgow. That was the first taste of the big stage.

“I just continued to race away and I won a silver medal at the Junior Europeans and that was a really big starting point and let me progress into the senior ranks.

“There was still a possibility then that we could get a team into the Olympics but it just didn’t happen for us.

“I was always really interested in the points race and that was definitely my focus but at the U23 I didn’t really feature at all.

“But then last year, when I came second at U23 behind the senior world champion – Jonathan Dibben — well, ever since then everything has kind of fallen into place.”

Source: Mark Downey/YouTube

Fallen into place is an understatement. Three World Cup events, three gold medals, two of them in the points race.

But what is it about points racing — where points are scored on sprints every ten laps — that makes Downey so good at it?

“I think there’s obviously a bit of strength involved but I’d be the first to say I’m not one of the strongest out there but I’m very good at reading a race. I can always sense the moment when a group is at its weakest and I’ve always been able to capitalise on that.

“So when everyone is maybe feeling it a bit more, I’m maybe not feeling it as much and the moment that makes the difference in winning and losing the race, it’s just a killer instinct that tells you that you need to go now.

“It’s hard to explain, it really just happens naturally, you’re not really thinking too much at the time. So for me, when the moment comes, I just go and I leave it until after the race to figure out whether or not that was the right decision.”

Tweet by @Mark Downey Source: Mark Downey/Twitter

Downey’s gut can be trusted so far, the medal haul above proves that, but what did that first gold in the Netherlands mean to the 20-year-old?

“It was huge. I wasn’t really expecting to do it there. I took some time off after the season and I didn’t really feel ready for the Glasgow World Cup so I took an extra week.

“My coach was saying it would be great to get the World Championship qualifying time in Apeldoorn (the Netherlands).

“But every time I go to the line, I go to win so that nature took over. It was really, really cool to see the guys I’d been watching on TV a couple of years ago, the likes of Morgan Kneisky and all these big guys and there’s this picture of me standing in the middle of them. It was just bizarre.

“And to go on from there and do three in a row is just incredible. I was out on the bike with my brother today and it just doesn’t feel real. I think you only start to appreciate moments like that when they’ve passed.”

Downey says the manner he won his second World Cup gold in Cali, Colombia — in a more attacking style — means it meant more to him than Apeldoorn. The fact he followed it up with silver in the Madison added to the occasion too.

Tweet by @Mark Downey Source: Mark Downey/Twitter

Downey and English went one better last week LA — where they reversed a narrow defeat to the Danish team — but now the focus is all on the World Championships in April, something he says would be a lot easier if Ireland had an indoor velodrome.

“There are umpteen positive things that could happen if we had one,” he says. “Obviously, kids could start on the track from a much earlier age, and we’d be producing way more champions.

“Then just the interest having international meets here would generate and, for the riders, racing in your home nation is huge.  Obviously, Cycling Ireland is in a good place and I think we can go from strength to strength over the next four years and there’s a bit of pressure there now.

“We’ve shown we can compete without a velodrome, so what the hell would we do with one?”

The 2017 UCI Track Cycling World Championships will take place in Hong Kong between 12 and 16 April and Downey is quietly confident his gold rush can continue.

“I feel excited for it. I’m not stressing about it, I’m not putting a huge amount of pressure on myself. I’m still only 20.

“But, at the same time, I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m riding races really well at the moment and the Worlds have been a goal for some time now. In August last year, after the Europeans, I told a newspaper I want to be a world champion.

“I’ve had three golds so far, so why not make it four?”

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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