South Yorkshire with Dean Downing
DISTANCE 38 miles (61km)
MAIN CLIMB None really
TOTAL CLIMB 243 metres
ACHTUNG! Be very careful crossing the A614
South Yorkshire has always been one of Britain’s big bike racing strongholds. Go east from the Chesterfield, Sheffield and Rotherham conurbation and the roads thread through a network of former mining villages. Nearly every one has produced a cycling champion.
Every village had a grass or cinder bike track and an annual sports day with sumptuous prize lists of silverware, clocks, carpets, furniture, anything the organisers could get from local businesses and that the riders could convert to cash.
“The grass tracks were mine and Russell’s childhood. Every weekend in the summer we went with our parents to some grass-track meeting where my dad, who was a carpenter at the local pit, raced to earn more money. We’d take our little bikes and bomb about on them, then eventually we started racing,” Downing recalls.
It sounds a bit sparking clogs, but it wasn’t. The pits created black scars that are now being reclaimed by green, but mining was an industry dropped into the countryside. Once you were out of the villages there were open fields and skylarks. And there still are, only more so.
Downing says; “I’ve been riding this route for as long as I’ve been riding a bike, but I still enjoy it. We can hammer it, like we do when Russell and I go out with the lads, or just ride easy like today. It’s good cycling country.”
It is good cycling country. Rolling in the west, where the ride starts and finishes, then flat as it dips into North Nottinghamshire for a few miles. Downing spins easily through the first few miles. Today is a sharp contrast to the week of hard racing he’s just had when he won a stage, was seventh overall and won the points jersey in the FBD Insurance Ras in Ireland.
“I was really pleased with the way I went. I’ve won stages in stage races before, but I’ve tended to drop off a bit as they go on. I didn’t in the Ras. It’s a culmination of a few factors, but racing in Belgium was the main thing that changed me as a rider. It made me realise how hard I can race,” says Downing.
He’s reached a good point in his cycling career and doesn‘t mind the inevitable comparisons with his younger brother. “Me and Russ are at different ends of the spectrum. I didn’t really get serious until I was 25. I’ve worked full-time in London and only became a pro towards my late twenties, whereas Russ has been a full-time bike racer since he was 19.
“Now I’m married, I’ve got a house and I’m still a full-time cyclist. It’s great to be financially secure racing for a small pro team. I enjoyed my time doing bigger races, but I didn’t enjoy not having the money and security.
“Russ is different, for a start he’s more talented than me and he could have done more because he also set out to be a pro from being young. I didn’t. Russ has proved that he could have won some big races. He has won some big ones. But he’s had a lot of bad luck, which is one reason why he is more driven than me.”
The route crosses into Nottinghamshire just outside Harworth, the former home of Britain’s only elite world road champion, Tom Simpson. Through the village, flick left and the route passes the factory where Simpson worked for a year as a draughtsman, before setting off on the adventure that would end 10 years later and a mile back down the road in the village cemetery.
“This is where it gets blasted on the Saturday run. We go a bit further then into the flat country and there are often crosswinds, which split the group up. It’s good training though,” Downing says as he passes through Mattersey.
We’re not doing that bit today and head south to Lound, before doing a bit of the old Great North Road that comes out of Retford and heads to Doncaster. The cycling connection here is with time trialling, especially when Downing takes the left that passes under the old O2 course and through the village of Blyth.
There’s a garden centre on the Blyth to Oldcotes road, so we stop for a coffee, some cake and a chat. One thing I wanted to ask Dean was about the reaction of some of his cycling pals, many of whom are traditional northern bike riders, to the expensive Rapha gear he wears.
“They like it, but they don’t like the price. Funny thing is though, when I’m out in new stuff they always comment on it. A couple of weeks ago we were sat in here and one of them said, “I like your cap, how much is it?” I told him £25 and he said, “What, I got this one in Spain for five euros and it’s as good as that.” But then he took it off and dangled it in front of me, and everybody started laughing because off his head it looked like a sack of spuds. Everyone could see the difference.
“I like the Rapha styling, and I think their style can put a positive spin on British cycling. Like the Smithfield event, it’s an amazing event. It really takes cycling to another set of people. I couldn’t believe how many people there were at the Smithfield race wearing Rapha stuff. They weren’t on their bikes, just on a night out, but they had long sleeved race tops on. That’s a thing I like about racing in Britain at the moment, there’s such a mix of the old and new. There’s a positive vibe about racing here now.”
Coffee break over and Downing heads west through the lanes around the back of Roche Abbey, a beautiful Cistercian monastery that sits in grounds sculpted by the garden designer Capability Brown. The road leads to Thurcroft, which was Downing’s childhood home. A few miles further and he’s at his new one, relieved to have begun training again after the rough roads of Ireland left him with “crotch issues”.
YOUR GUIDE: DEAN DOWNING
- Age 33, married to Katy, lives in Sunnyside, South Yorkshire
- A full-time bike rider with the Rapha-Condor-Recycling team
- Has got a degree in construction management
- Dean and Katy have a puppy called Beau
Start in Bramley at the junction of the A631 and B6093 and go north on the B6093. Turn right (TR) on the unclassified. Turn left (TL) to Micklebring. TR on B6094. TR on unclassified to Tickhill. TR on A60. TL on A631. TR on B6463. TL on first unclassified after Harworth. Cross the A614, go through Serlby and TR on A638. TL on unclassified (Folly Nook Lane). TL on B6045 to Mattersey and TR on unclassified. TR on unclassified in Sutton Cum Lound. TR on A638. TL on A634 to Blyth and then Oldcotes. TL on unclassified to Firbeck then Laughton-en-le-Morthen and Thurcroft. TR on unclassified just before the M18. TL on unclassified over the M18 and follow back to Bramley.