Alex Dowsett: “The world of professional cycling is delicate – wealthy individuals may enter, put in money, and then quickly exit.”
“The professional cycling industry is chaotic,” Alex Dowsett humorously notes, “and I feel fortunate and honored to have been a member of it for numerous years.” Dowsett had a 12-year career as a professional cyclist, achieving two stage victories in the Giro d’Italia and earning the title of six-time national time trial champion before retiring in October.
In his highly engaging and informative new book, the author also discusses how road cycling is a competitive industry where riders endure physical hardship and rely on both advanced and disorganized teams for success.
Dowsett, a haemophiliac who stands out among the small number of haemophiliacs who have taken part in professional sports, faced every chance with unwavering determination and strength. He possesses intelligence and a pleasant personality, traits that may seem out of place in the competitive world of sports where he has experienced feelings of both indispensability and insignificance from his bosses within the same week.
Dowsett, who won a memorable stage of the 2020 Giro, revealed that his team, Israel Start-Up Nation, had initially ignored his requests to discuss his future. Despite being aware of his wife Chanel’s pregnancy, they only offered him a contract after receiving pressure from social media following his emotional victory. “I am currently without a contract for next year and my first child is due in January,” he expressed. “I have been feeling a lot of stress and anxiety about it.”
Despite being on a team, Dowsett was able to secure a victory by making important changes to his bike. He proudly states that he did not wear any of his team’s gear during the race. He even purchased his own socks and skin suit, after researching for the most aerodynamic options, as his team was not focused on this aspect.
Dowsett observed a lack of emotional intelligence in his previous teams, and he accuses Dave Brailsford of Team Sky for using the same tactic of not responding to communication. According to Dowsett, this was a strategic move during contract negotiations, as Team Sky was aware that many young British riders desired to join their team. This pattern of not answering calls also happened to another rider that Dowsett knows. The intention was to make the rider wait until Team Sky was their only option, and then they could dictate their desired salary.
In 2013, Dowsett caused surprise by departing from Sky to join Movistar, despite Sky’s dominance in cycling at the time. He reveals that Dave, his team manager, only gave him negative feedback and never once praised him or acknowledged his achievements.
The young rider was greatly impressed by Brailsford and Bradley Wiggins, the winner of Team Sky’s inaugural Tour de France in 2012. However, he spoke to his boss about his negative attitude. According to Dowsett, Brailsford stated that he was actively trying to improve in this aspect.
Dowsett shares, “I almost pitied him. Perhaps he is unable to empathize and sees it as simply numbers and a game.” Currently, he and Brailsford have a cordial relationship – if we were to cross paths on the street, we would exchange a quick update.
At times, there are individuals whom you can have a conversation with, and there are others who make you feel like you are being lectured. Many men in authoritative positions fall into the latter category. Perhaps that is why they excel in their roles.
Dowsett’s book alludes to the idea that a lot of the leaders in the cycling world are unpleasant individuals. He smirks from his residence in Essex, stating that it is not uncommon for world champions to possess unlikable personalities in sports.
Dowsett chuckles, both at his own expense and the demanding deities of athletics. “That’s a good one to use as a justification. I could have been a world champion, but I wasn’t enough of a jerk.”
In 2011, when Dowsett became a member of Sky, he recalls: “During the initial training camp, I shared a room with Bradley Wiggins and we would sit in complete silence, unless I initiated conversation. He was completely uncommunicative and didn’t even make a sound.”
What is his opinion of Wiggins at present? “I am not familiar with him personally, but he has shown himself to be quite kind. He sent me a wonderful message before my Hour record [attempt] was postponed due to Covid. He has a fascinating personality.”
Wiggins’s achievements with Team Sky have been clouded by controversy sparked by Dr Richard Freeman , the former chief doctor for Team Sky and British Cycling, who was found by a medical tribunal to have ordered testosterone in 2011. Freeman was permanently struck off the medical register as it was decided he had ordered the drug while “knowing or believing” it would help dope a cyclist.
In June 2011, Freeman helped Wiggins obtain permission to use triamcinolone for therapeutic purposes. Wiggins has denied any misconduct. At the tribunal, Freeman stated that his laptop had been stolen, causing him to be unable to provide proper medical records.
According to Dowsett, Freeman was not very diligent. He often had to be reminded about his haemophilia and medication. Whenever he joined a new team, he would request that they inform their members about his condition so that they would understand why he needed to inject himself with medication. However, when he joined Sky, they did not inform their riders about him. Therefore, the incident with the lost laptop was not unexpected, as it was in line with Freeman’s behavior.
Was the increased suspicion surrounding Team Sky, following the Freeman revelations, warranted? “Absolutely, it was not a good situation.”
When I inquire about Wiggins, Dowsett hesitates before responding. “I haven’t really considered it, but perhaps. To keep my mind at ease, I try not to dwell on it too much.”
Dowsett’s haemophilia has caused him to contemplate the issue of doping. He firmly believes that those who engage in cheating should receive a lifetime ban. According to him, if someone blatantly cheats, they do not deserve the opportunity to return to their sport. Being a sportsman is a privilege, and he does not agree with the idea of giving people a chance at redemption. In his opinion, cheating not only undermines the integrity of the sport but also takes away the hard-earned results of those who have followed the rules.
According to Dowsett, the top cyclists in the world currently do not use performance enhancing drugs. The three most talented cyclists are Jonas Vingegaard, who has won the past two Tours de France, Tadej Pogacar, who won the race in 2020 and 2021, and Remco Evenepoel, who won the Vuelta a España and the World Road Race Championship last year. Evenepoel has always shown natural talent on a bike, so there are no surprises in his success. Dowsett is frustrated when people accuse Jonas and Pogacar of cheating just because they can climb faster than Marco Pantani. He believes this accusation is lazy and unfounded.
“When does the monk-like lifestyle, which they did not practice in the past, make a difference? These individuals are using 28mm tires with 70 psi instead of 19mm tires at 120 psi, as it is believed to have lower rolling resistance, which is significant. The nutritional strategies are also important.”
In the past, Alberto Contador stated that if you are not constantly motivated and driven, then you are not putting in enough effort. Nowadays, athletes need to consume a significant amount of food to sustain the energy necessary for competition. While small improvements may have been the focus in the past, now the one major improvement of doping from years ago has been surpassed.
Dowsett emphasizes the persistence of random testing and disregards any doubts expressed towards Vingegaard, particularly in France. He jokingly points out the pattern of disliking cyclists like Chris Froome until they start losing. Dowsett also notes that it’s difficult to dislike these young superstars because they are genuinely nice people. However, in the Tour de France time trial, Vingegaard’s determination is evident and Dowsett can relate to the feeling of being on a good day and wanting to win by a significant margin. Despite this competitive drive, Dowsett acknowledges that Vingegaard and other young cyclists are still friendly individuals.
In 2019, Team Sky changed its name to Ineos, but Dave Brailsford remained in charge. Currently, Ineos is behind Jumbo-Visma, the team of Vingegaard. According to Dowsett, Ineos has not declined, but rather reached a plateau. Jumbo and UAE (the team of Pogacar) have followed in Ineos’ footsteps from 10 years ago. Ineos revolutionized their approach and achieved success, but then fell into the trap of sticking to their old ways. On the other hand, Jumbo recognized the need to rethink and improve upon Ineos’ methods. However, it begs the question: will Jumbo face the same struggles in five years that Ineos is facing now? Will we look back and wonder why they were once a dominant team?
Dowsett believes that Ineos is capable of winning grand tours once more, but suggests that they may need a more significant obstacle to overcome, as their success this year has largely been thanks to the efforts of Tom Pidcock and Josh Tarling.
There were speculations that Jumbo might merge with Soudal-QuickStep due to financial struggles. However, those plans have been put aside, but there are still concerns about the state of cycling. According to Dowsett, the underlying business model is not ideal as it heavily depends on wealthy individuals treating cycling as a hobby.
“It could be worse. There are sports with much less funding where one can have a successful career without ever winning a bike race. However, the world of professional cycling is delicate. We have witnessed wealthy individuals invest heavily, only to be shocked by the challenges of creating a financially viable team. They often end up getting burned and leaving the sport.”
What we do is a great honor, although it can be difficult. My father once said, “You are well compensated, but I wonder if any amount is truly sufficient for what you endure.” It’s hard for me to grumble when I see young doctors going on strike. They are responsible for saving lives, yet are only paid £14 per hour.
Dowsett previously shared how he overcame the challenges of haemophilia with the support of his parents. He always approached cycling fearlessly and that confidence has carried over into his retirement. Despite no longer being a professional cyclist, Dowsett remains passionate about the sport and continues to compete in time trials as an amateur. He also runs a coaching company and collaborates with a company designing skin suits. While he is content with being removed from the “sh*tshow” of professional cycling, Dowsett still remains involved and enjoys it. Although he sometimes considers pursuing other ventures, he acknowledges that his extensive knowledge and experience in the sport make it difficult to completely walk away from it. He now finds a new appreciation for cycling.
Alex Dowsett’s memoir, Bloody Minded: My Life in Cycling, has been released by Bloomsbury Sport.