Something is not right. Russell Downing, sat across the table from me, normally as chipper as chipper can be, is decidedly out of sorts.
If SRM added a chipometer to its range to sit alongside its power cranks, this rider would normally be nudging the upper reaches of its capabilities – somewhere between ten and a Spinal Tap-esque 11. Now he is downright grumpy.
This usually easy-going man from Yorkshire, is feeling dicky for the second day running of the Three Days of De Panne, a race run for the last 37 years in Belgium as a warm-up for the impending and rather more serious matters of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
VDK-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, to give the race its proper Belgian title, is a decent enough event in its own right, but its proximity to the Belgian big two of the Classics season lends a slightly underwhelming air to proceedings. As a journalist – or bike fan – there’s a lot to be said for races like De Panne, where a lack of pressure allows access to teams and riders ordinarily off limits. But when the star riders start bailing after a couple of days, keeping their powder dry for the following Sunday’s Ronde, you can’t help but feel slightly cheated. Who’s going to win? Who cares! The big boys went home already.
One man who won’t be going home quite yet is Downing, sitting in a hotel bar wrestling with the Speedplay cleats on his shoes, determined to find a solution to his poor form in recent weeks. Four crashes since the start of the season have left him scratching his head and wondering when Lady Luck will smile his way. Crashes for a pro cyclist may well be part and parcel of the job, but for an experienced bike handler like Downing, two or three a year might be par for the course. Four in as many weeks was beyond a joke.
“I was good two weeks ago, but not now,” he says dejectedly. “I didn’t take any skin off in the last crash, but something is not quite firing.”
So this joker in the pack, who along with older brother Dean is a popular and seemingly ever-present fixture on the UK racing scene, is down but not out, convinced there must be a simple solution to his bad run. That morning in Oudenaarde’s beautiful town square, across the road from the Ronde Museum, Downing had hassled the mechanics for Allen keys and adjusted his saddle height a tad, wondering if that might be the cause of the strange sensations in his legs.
The answer, when it came, was both unexpected and bizarre. The cleat on Downing’s left shoe was 25mm further back than on the right, presumably shifting during one of the aforementioned crashes in the weeks prior to De Panne.
Now, in this world of professional cycling where the top bananas are supposed to notice if so much as a pea has been placed beneath their mattress of an evening, you may wonder why Downing didn’t figure that one out previously. I certainly did. Twenty-five millimetres is no typo: we are not talking 2.5 millimetres here. That’s a whole inch, near as damn it.
“It just didn’t feel right and I couldn’t work out what it was,” he says. “I couldn’t get any power out. I was so pissed off, then I went to change my cleats and one of them was out by 25mm. You never know, it might have done me good in the long run and strengthened my left leg.”
That’s an upbeat appraisal of what might, just might, have benefitted Downing’s marginally weaker left leg for however long he’s been riding with this positional imbalance, as we joke about the pedalling triangles motion he has endured for several weeks. Imagine if he’d been using those Osymetric chainrings that Wiggins used to use. He’d have been pedalling octagons…
New cleats correctly fitted, the transformation was immediate. Downing placed himself in the early five-man break the following day for a good old-fashioned blow out prior to Flanders. With the oldest man in the race (and possibly professional cycling, for that matter), 42-year-old Niko Eeckhout, driving the younger men along, the quintet pressed on promisingly, until that unwelcome symbol of many a cursed Belgian breakaway, the train crossing, intervened.
Thirty seconds or so spent jiggling around behind a barrier and the not-so-famous five resumed their mission, but the impetus was gone. Truth be told, the sprinter’s teams would have reeled them in at a time of their choosing, but that extra half a minute would have added a little extra spice to the morning’s racing.
As the bunch split apart on the final finishing laps of the town of De Panne, Downing lost the best part of a minute in the closing kilometres. He had done enough, however, to make the 120-man cut for the afternoon’s time-trial. If NetApp-Endura directeur sportif Enrico Poitschke was happy with his man’s performance, it was hard to tell.
“He didn’t say a word, to be honest,” says Downing, nonplussed. “I came back, gave him my bike and said: ‘That’s more like it’. He didn’t say a word. A couple of the lads afterwards had no idea I was in the break…”
Extract from issue 39 of Rouleur, published in 2013