'Time with mum and dad is time I never really would have got if something like this didn't happen'

Mark Downey on the life of an athlete under lockdown, featuring Fortnite, scones and childhood memories.

Mark Downey is one of Ireland's top track cyclists.
Mark Downey is one of Ireland's top track cyclists.
Image: Guy Swarbrick

MARK DOWNEY, ALONG with team-mate Felix English, recently qualified Ireland a spot for the Olympics in track cycling. In his second column for The42, he gives his thoughts on what it’s like for an elite athlete living under lockdown.

The last few mornings, I’ve been getting up late. Normally, when we’re in training camp, we’re getting up pretty early — eight o’clock or so. I’ve fallen into a bit of a routine ever since these clocks have changed and I’m getting up at 10 o’clock nearly.

I’m not really a morning person, so I thrive on people forcing me up. The family are quite early risers. Everyone’s up at seven o’clock in my house, so I’m the odd one out at the minute.

Yesterday, I went out for a spin with my mum and dad for a bit of change, just on the road with a mountain bike, which is something I used to do as a kid. It’s something we haven’t been able to do for years — ride along and have a chat.

Then we came home and had afternoon tea. My sister was cooking scones all morning.

In the afternoon, I played a bit of PlayStation. I was speaking to the lifestyle coach and he was saying you can’t be wasting your time playing PlayStation these next few weeks, but I’ve a bit of a passion for Fortnite.

I’ve also been doing a bit of work in my dad’s shop. He’s the type of man who just gathers things up year after year. I hadn’t been about the shop much and decided we were going to clear the place out. It’s cool looking back at newspaper clippings from when he was racing and we’re just clearing out all those old bikes, different bits and pieces, just trying to keep ourselves busy really.

It’s a bike shop, so kids’ bikes, adults’ bikes from the ’60s and ’70s — there was a lot of retro stuff, my first-ever road bike. The size of the wheel you couldn’t even buy anymore, and I remember, as a kid, you couldn’t even buy tubes for it, so when we used to ride it on, every 15 minutes, we’d have to stop to pump it up, because the tyres were going down.

My dad said ‘that used to be worth a lot of money,’ but I told him it’s not worth a lot of money now. There is so much stuff from years ago that would have been in fashion — a funky-looking handle bar or tyres. Bikes have changed over the years, so that shop is just a step back in time. 

At the moment, you wake up every morning thinking about what you should be doing to keep your mind occupied. We don’t have any real purpose. It’s just about getting out before we get back into training.

When I wake up in the morning in Majorca, everything’s dialled in to the minute. I’m on the road for 9am, I’m back in for lunch, you’re straight in to get showered, you have a 40-minute kip. Then you’re packing your bag to go to the track in the afternoon. Then you’re home, cook your dinner, stick on a film and go straight to bed.

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phynova-six-day-cycling-day-four-lee-valley-velopark Mark Downey pictured with Irish team-mate Felix English. Source: Bradley Collyer

It’s a lot different now where you’re wondering how to keep busy. It’s good to mentally switch off when you’re in that robotic function. Time just passes and you don’t even know it.

Time with mum and dad on the bike is time I never really would have got if something like this didn’t happen. I was thinking this is probably the longest time I’ve ever spent at home since I’ve been at school. I’m enjoying it, but we had a conference call yesterday and our coaches are motivating us now, because we’ve got the rescheduled dates for the Olympic Games. That’s exciting to get a bit of focus and direction and know where you’re going. We haven’t got a real plan, but they’re talking about the Europeans in October, which will probably be our first step back. 

The lifestyle coach was saying these next few weeks are just for you to focus on the areas you’d like to improve on. The last few weeks enabled me to see there are some things I should have been focusing on the last few years of my career. I can do a lot more core stretches and those sort of things I was neglecting when I was racing.

My coach said ‘you need to write all these things down,’ so that when you step back into the bubble, you’ll be focused on them and coming back with a clear mind. So I don’t take the time for granted.

It’s good to get different perspectives from outside, someone who is always second guessing you. Are you good enough in this area? I’m like, I need to brush up on my languages — I’m studying French and Spanish. My lifestyle coach was like: well, what have you done? I haven’t done that much.

I’ve learned a wee bit, but I need to sit down and crack on. You’re not going to be a professional athlete for all your life. You need to utilise the skills as much as possible when you have so much spare time. So it’s good to be critical of yourself, because we’re all imperfect.

I’m lucky I’m spending time with my family. My mum or sister will be like — right, you’re going to cook the dinner today. So it definitely does help having a lot of people around me.

But for me, from a cycling perspective, it’s a step backwards. I’m used to knowing what I’m doing, just going out on the road, the track or the gym. It’s definitely different with the lack of adrenaline or stress on yourself to focus on your competition.

My psychologist was saying you just need to absorb this time. You haven’t got this time in the last two years. You might get a bit of cabin fever. But I’ll embrace it and once the training time comes back, I’ll get back into shape again and then it’s back to work.

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Mark Downey

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