As a rider Downs could read a race perfectly. 'I did not miss much. I just hope I can still do it as a manager,' said the man who has to turn five Englishmen and a Welshman into a team. 'That is my biggest job. Getting them to pull together. Most British teams ride as individuals because they are anxious for world championship selections and so on, and they are not willing to help one another.
'That is the big problem, and no one can win a Milk Race, or any race like it, that way. You certainly will not combat well-drilled teams like our professionals with such an outlook. Three times in 11 years we had teams that were capable of winning, but it only happened once, in my first year, 1976, when Bill Nickson won.' That was the last time a British amateur took the yellow jersey of the victor in an event that is billed as the world's leading amateur race.
Over the last 17 years Britain's best overall showing by an amateur was from Simeon Hempsall who was second in 1991. Downs's record of a third and two fourths, plus other high placings in other race categories, is the mark of a tactician who was not afforded the right breaks. 'Several times I found myself alone in a leading group and I was close to winning the race in 1981, but a puncture finished my chances. It was galling because the next day I was in a good move again, but I had no chance of making up the two minutes I had lost.'
Downs's Britannia-Dale Farm team includes four men who have been racing regularly in France, and that raises his ambitions. 'They are a well-balanced team, capable of achieving something. I have to instil confidence in them, but if I do shout at them they know that I have been in their position.'
Hempsall who rides for Great Britain-Manchester 2000 has also been training and racing in France. His season has been marked by two classic wins, but he prefers to concentrate on daily wins rather than overall success. 'You need luck in this game,' Sheffied's Hempsall said. 'When I was second overall I got in a move that gained more than 15 minutes, and the next day I was in another good attack. Racing in France is like racing internationally each week, because there are Danes, Poles and Russians competing with the French.'
He will be lining up with Danes and Poles tomorrow when the Milk Race, the 36th and possibly the last, starts in Tunbridge Wells. The Soviets who cast a Red mist over the race with six wins in eight years are no more. Now there is Kazakhstan, unknown to many, but their riders distinguished themselves last year as members of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, and an Australian team in great form, make that next home amateur victory seem remote. Yet the British professionals could hold the key to the 1,150- mile race. Teamwork is the key, and they have it as they showed with four wins in the last seven years.
As the race has an open licence the organisers are permitted a percentage of professionals. That is how they broke the Soviet stranglehold in the 80s. Last year Conor Henry recorded Ireland's first triumph, and was the first amateur winner since Vassily Zhdanov in 1988, and the Belfast rider was taken to the line by the Belgian professionals as his team disintegrated around him.
He returns this year for a second stab at a race that takes the riders over ground that the Tour de France will cover next year. It is the first time that the race has visited Kent since 1961, and according to hints emanating from the sponsors, the Milk Marketing Board, it is close to being the last.
The Board is due to be wound up next year, which puts a question mark over one of sport's longest-running sponsorships. The race finishes in Manchester on Saturday, 12 June, in support of the Manchester Olympic bid. Both the race and the bid need all the luck that Bob Downs never had.
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