Alex Dowsett on mental health, recovering from Covid, and his hour record attempt

From the highs of winning a stage of the Giro d’Italia, to catching Covid and not being selected for the Tokyo Olympics, Alex Dowsett had a rollercoaster 2020. Now he’s attempting the hour record again, writes Sean Russell

Tuesday 02 November 2021 14:24
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Alex Dowsett is not in Mexico just to see how far he can go around the Aguascalientes Bicentenary Velodrome in an hour, he’s there the break the world record and he knows he can do it. He knows he had more distance in him when he took the record in 2015 and he knows he has the power required to do it in Mexico on Wednesday and he says he’s feeling good. He’s at the fastest velodrome in the world, at the highest altitude, he’s got his partner, Chanel, his 10-month year old daughter, Juliette, and a hand-picked team surrounding him. Dowsett is in a good place, but it wasn’t always so.

In October 2020, after the uncertainty and delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the cycling season had begun and the Giro d’Italia was about to start. There were some questions surrounding whether or not the race would make it all the way to the end, but for Dowsett there was even more uncertainty hanging over him. He was yet to have a contract with his new team, Israel Start-Up Nation, in fact he had received a call saying it was possible his contract wouldn’t be renewed. Then, on Stage 8, Dowsett took his first Grand Tour stage win since 2013, soloing across the line in Vieste with such apparent emotion and relief that it reminded me, watching from Palermo, of why I loved cycling. His contract was renewed for another two years and things were looking good.

Dowsett, no longer having to worry about putting food on the table for his soon-to-arrive new-born baby, set his sights on one of his ultimate goals, the hour record. He’d held the record for a month or so in 2015, setting a distance of 52.937km in the Manchester Velodrome before Sir Bradley Wiggins took it by adding almost 2km more. Since then, the 33-year-old has been eyeing another attempt. But he would have to go even further still as Belgian Victor Campenaerts set the current record of 55.089km in 2019 at the very same velodrome that Dowsett will make his attempt on Wednesday.

“I knew from the 2015 attempt, I could have gone further,” Dowsett told The Independent from Mexico, “so one of the motivations for last year’s attempt – and this year’s attempt – is just to see what I’m capable of.”

But it wasn’t to be. At almost the same time as Dowsett announced his attempt in 2020 he contracted Covid-19. He and his team began to discuss whether they could still have a go at the record, it was three weeks away and maybe he could get over the illness and be ready to take it on. In the end he decided against it. For an hour attempt, he told me, you can’t be anything less than in perfect shape.

Not long after this, Dowsett was informed that he had not been selected for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic team. This was hard to stomach for the Brit who’d set his eyes on two things; the hour record and the Olympics.

“The Olympics were the big focus for a couple of years, it was a real rollercoaster,” he says. “We’d made some mistakes around fitness and form and it transpired that they didn’t take me which was tough, I had devoted everything to it and then to just get an official letter saying you haven’t been picked, that’s hard.”

Dowsett decided to speak to British Cycling about their selection and discovery process because of the issues surrounding elite athletes and their mental health, and suggested more compassion was required. He points towards the tragic death of 24-year-old New Zealand track cyclist Olivia Podmore who took her own life in August after posting on Instagram about the pressures of high-performance sport.

“I think steps will be made [by British Cycling] because it is tough and it’s okay for me because I’m old enough and ugly enough to have other priorities in my life, I have a beautiful daughter and family. It’s tough but not the end of the world. But for a youngster who lives, sleeps and breathes the Olympics to get that notification that they’re not going can be a real dark time. I think there needs to be more support.”

Dowsett stresses that elite sport is hard and should be hard. But at the very top, the top 10 or so people competing for a handful of places on an Olympic team, more needs to be done.

“Covid has highlighted just how hard elite-level sport can be,” says Dowsett. “No one becomes an Olympic champion without putting in the graft. We know the podium is just a snippet of years and years of hard work, it’s not easy and unfortunately not everyone can go to the Olympics. If there are four slots on the team pursuit and you’re fifth best, then clearly you shouldn’t go, but I feel there’s a way of making that fifth or sixth person feel that they’re a valued member of the team.

“The focus has to be on the few that are on that cusp, waiting for that letter or email knowing it can go either way, they’re the ones that need the most support. Whilst it’s tough, and the governing bodies say they don’t have the capacity to support everyone, it’s not everyone that needs the support it’s actually fewer than perhaps they think.”

As 2020 drew to a close Dowsett began to look to the coming birth of his first child. The cycling season was over, he was moving on from the Olympics and the hour record, and he was getting back into training when it became clear that he still hadn’t recovered from Covid.

“I just wasn’t right on the bike,” says Dowsett. “I was still way off the mark, and I wasn’t sure why. I phoned my coach on one ride, 30 minutes in to a 5 hour session, and I was close to tears and I said ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me, this shouldn’t be this hard.’ He asked me how long ago I had Covid and I said four or five weeks and he said the effects of it are still there and he’s seen it in other athletes. That put my mind at rest a bit and I took my foot off the gas to let my body recover.”

Then in early January his daughter, Juliette, was born and everything changed. He was only able to spend 10 or so days with her before having to head off on a training camp but his perspective had shifted and his motivation was back. The time he’d taken to recover had worked and he was able to train properly again for a season which seemed far less likely to be disrupted by the pandemic than 2020 had been, and he was ready to take on the hour record again.

Dowsett believes that it is a type of cycling that suits him, he was drawn to the record in his youth, watching the likes of Chris Boardman and Chris Hoy take it on and it sparked something in his imagination. He wanted to give it a go and realised it played to his strengths. He wanted to do it in Manchester again, but unfortunately it was unavailable due to some maintenance work. London was too slow a track and so Dowsett thought the best place to do it was at the fastest track in the world, 1800m above sea level.

“When you’re riding uphill the altitude feels nothing short of horrendous,” says Dowsett, “But riding downhill or on the flat you effectively have less wind resistance. It’s doesn’t seem like a huge amount of power needed to beat the hour record, but you have to hold the position and at that altitude it’s like breathing through a straw.”

Fortunately, Dowsett says the altitude doesn’t bother him. He spends much of his year in Andorra at high altitude and is used to it. One thing becomes very clear when speaking to Dowsett, while he certainly has a belief in his ability to beat the record, he also knows the maths behind it. He knows what power output he requires, and he knows he can do it. He speaks of effort, wheel choices, tyre pressures. He says his onboard computer, the Hammerhead Karoo 2, shows him what power each leg is doing in training and can help him work out what positions and equipment is quickest. He believes the data made available to him by the computer to be all important to beating the record, and while he can’t have the computer in front of him on the track – due to the UCI rules – in training this has been crucial.

“It won’t be easy, but we’ve been on the track for a couple of days now and we’ve done short runs and a long run,” he says. “Everything is adding up and everything is looking good. We’re in a good place.”

But there is more to this attempt for Dowsett, he is also raising money, via his Just Giving page, for his own charity, Little Bleeders. Dowsett has haemophilia, meaning that without medication his blood will not clot in the case of an accident. He is perhaps the only able-bodied elite-level athlete in the world with this condition and while he says doctors often give a worst-case scenario he hopes he can be an example of a best case scenario, that people, and especially children, can see that they can do whatever they want with the right treatment, even compete in the highest levels of sport.

He tells a story about a mother of a haemophiliac child who, on finding out Dowsett shared the condition, was amazed. Cycling isn’t inherently dangerous, but crashes seem more of a matter of when, not if. The mother saw that if Dowsett could do that, her son could live a normal life too. Little Bleeders was set up to support these children and help them towards a fulfilled life.

What happens if Dowsett has a crash? He’s been asked that question a lot, and each new team asks him too. The answer is: much the same as if any other cyclist crashes. Thanks to the medication Dowsett takes every two days, he can be taken to hospital as normal – if necessary. Perhaps the hospital will panic a bit more, but other than that Dowsett feels strongly that he should be an example of how someone with haemophilia can live. The fundraising and awareness is even more important than the record, he says, but that doesn’t mean he’s not trying to beat it.

“I know I can go further than last time round, but we’re not here to see how far I can go, we’re here to break the record,” he says. “That will be a damn sight harder than last time and that’s something we have to approach carefully. After 30 minutes I’ll assess where I am, and then make a decision about what to do and see if we can put some distance into this record.”

Alex Dowsett is feeling good. And then what’s the plan after the attempt? A beer, quite simply, before heading off to Israel, and then eventually back to the UK to spend some much-deserved time with his family.

The hour record attempt will take place at 10pm (UK time) on Wednesday 3 November. It will be streamed online by the BBC and the UCI as well as Dowsett’s own YouTube channel.

To support Little Bleeders click here for the Just Giving page.

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