This is the first in a series of articles in which we explore racing in Belgium, and chat to a few guys that “have done it the hard way”, outside of “The Plan”, and on their own. To kick us off, we caught up with Rapha Condor star Dean Downing between Tour Series criteriums.
‘Deano’: may be well known for his high-profile wins in Premier Calendar races and riding madisons on the track with brother Russ, but he actually learnt his trade racing on the Belgian cobbles, way back in 2000.
“I raced for the Kingsnorth International Wheelers, and loved the racing and way of life. I stayed on in Belgium for ’01, ’02 and ’03 and raced with the Belgian John Saey team, living with a family in Beveren Waas for those 3 years.”
“The Kingsnorth was run by Staf Boone in Gent, but my contact came via Peter Murphy back in the UK. Numbers in the club went up and down as riders came and went, but it was all English-speaking ‘foreign’ riders: Aussies; Kiwis; Americans; and a few Brits too.”
To get the ball rolling, Dean took the initiative himself and rang Peter, who passed on Staf’s details. Dean rang Staf from his home and discussed the deal, and in no time flat had jumped on the ferry with his bike, and found himself in a room rented from Staf.
“I got to race in some pretty big Inter-Club races in Belgium and France, and all the local kermis’s.
“In the summer, July / August we could race four times a week, in an area of around 30 miles around Gent, and it was pretty easy to get there – we would either ride one way / both ways, or go in the big van. That was a laugh; it had cinema seats in the back bolted to the floor.
“The Inter-Clubs we did were always selected by Staf and they were usually on current form so we always put on a good show.”
We’ve heard Dean in the races, able to pass on his views to fellow riders in Flemish, and over the four years spent racing in Belgium he ended up speaking the language pretty well.
“At the end of 2001 I worked in the winter with my sponsor John Saey – that was a building company, so my vocabulary was probably a little distorted but the words I learnt were certainly helpful in the bunch! After that I went to school to learn it a few days a week, but it was pretty hard to pick up. The swearing phrases are some of the funniest in any language, I still us them today in the english peloton!”
One of Dean’s favourite results was winning his first kermis in August 2000;
“I got away with an ex-Pro six day rider and he was pretty confident of beating me (I was told afterwards). He lead it out and I came round him on the line – I was pretty happy. The best thing about that ride though was that we became friends and I : rode some track races with him in the winter at the end of the season.
“I had a lot of Inter-Club podiums in my John Saey colours, and the team director Lucienne DeWilde (6-day legend Etienne DeWilde’s elder brother) was always proud of me – that made me work hard in all my races, and I had some great top five results in those three years.
“I raced against quite a few guys who went on to do something in the sport, such as Tom Boonen, Philip Gilbert, Kevin Van Impe, Jurgen Vandewalle, and Wouter Weylend.
“There are plenty of funny stories I could recount, both on and off the bike, but maybe one day I’ll put them in a book; ‘The Belgium Years’!”
The Belgian sojourne came to an end in 2003 when Dean won the Madison champs with Russ, they were welcomed onto ‘the Plan’ [the GB Track Team World Class Performance Plan] and had 2 good years racing in the World Cups.
“We also rode the World Track Champs in Melbourne, and during those two great years I was with Charlie Jackson’s Recycling.co.uk UK pro team.
“Now I’ve been back in the UK for the last three seasons with Rapha Condor and I’m still ‘living my dream’ – I know I’m loving my bike racing at the minute.
“I have absolutely no regrets about doing it my way, but it wasn’t easy. I know a lot of guys go abroad themselves to give racing a go, and that’s the best thing they can do.
“The guys on the British Cycling Academy Programme have a great opportunity to make a career out of cycling, but it’s not a sure thing – they all have to work very hard towards their personal goals, and so everyone really is in the same boat. Main thing to remember though is that hard work normally pays off in the end.”
Thanks for the time Deano, and all the best for the rest of the season here in the UK.