A Conversation with
by Anna Magrath
Alex Dowsett chats to me about cycling, living with haemophilia, Team Sky… and the significance of martial arts bears in modern cinema.
Alex is one of British Cycling’s rising stars, and this year the Essex rider joined the ranks of Team Sky. Alex, who has spent his career perfecting his time trialling technique, has had a lot of success against the clock. Alex joined the Trek-Livestrong Development Team after spending three years with the British Cycling Olympic Academy. He spent a lot of time in Quaratta, Italy with British Cycling before he was snapped up by Trek-Livestrong in 2010, a team owned by Lance Armstrong. Under Director Sportif Axel Merckx Alex flourished. In 2011 Alex came back to the British Cycling fold by signing to Team Sky where he’s had an excellent start to his season.
Alex suffers from haemophilia and he’s the only rider in the Pro Tour peloton with the condition. I caught up with him to talk about his career and how his condition has impacted on his life.
How has your first season with Team Sky gone?
This years been pretty good so far, I mean I sort of set out with the aim not to disgrace myself in my first year in the pro ranks, so I’m pretty sure I’ve not done that. I got my first podium in the prologue of the Electro Tour [Ster ZLM Toer] a few weeks ago… and I finished sixth overall and I’ve just finished 5th overall in the Tour of Denmark [Post Danmark Rundt], 3rd in the Time Trial on Stage 5 which I am really, really pleased with. It’s just nice to prove to myself that I can be competitive at this level. So it’s still onwards and upwards. Unfortunately I’ve had a little bit of an ankle injury just the last couple if weeks so I had to take some time off but it’s all been fixed and I’m back on the bike and trying to crawl back to where I was before.
What was the ankle injury?
It’s basically a form of arthritis, I haven’t got a lot of cartilage in there which the doctors have fixed with cortisone injections along with a lubricant which they injected straight into the joint and that seems to have fixed it. The doctors are pretty confident that it shouldn’t give me any hassle. They say there’s research into other sports that are weight bearing and there are footballers in far worse condition than I am in, playing football is pretty hazardous for the joints.
Is it something they’ll have to keep an eye on?
Yeah I might have to have this injection they say maybe at worst every six months but I might never have to have it again. So it’s just a case of if it comes on again I know something can be done to ease it, so it’s not bad at all to be honest.
So will that injury be impacted upon by your haemophilia or is unrelated?
The haemophilia certainly wouldn’t have helped it, I’m not sure whether it’s directly related or not, it’s difficult to know to be honest. It might stem from me playing basketball a lot when I was at school, that could have aggravated it. It could be a culmination of a number of things, haemophilia included most likely, so it’s not something we see as being massively important, it’s just a case of managing it and dealing with it as best we can.
So have you enjoyed your time off the bike or were you itching to get back out there?
Yeah it was good, well it was frustrating for a while, it was a bit of a worry. I only really had one day were I was pretty down about it all, I went out that night and lost all my worries though. I didn’t drink because I live in the middle of nowhere so it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare when I want to go out and have a drink. I had a nice time though and met a really nice girl that I’m still talking to so it’s all good in that respect, I was stone cold sober! It couldn’t have gone better really and I felt great in the morning not having a hangover.
What’s your next focus then?
Well for the next few races, with all this time off, I’ll be largely playing the domestique team roll, doing what I can for whoever’s really on form and going for it. I’ll be doing things like getting bottles, lead outs and just generally looking after the boys.
Who’s on the next team selection with you?
Errr… [Chuckles] I haven’t the foggiest, I mean I probably should know, it’s all on the website, we get the race brief through a couple of days before we travel. We do so many races with so many people it all just rolls on to the next one, there’s a large number of us. Usually directors ring around everyone a few days before a tour or race to see how everyone’s feeling and how the training’s going and how well they’ll be performing. It also depends on whether the race is going to suit you more than others.
So how are you settling in to Team Sky?
Oh it’s been brilliant, they really do look after their athletes, the support you get when things are up and when you’re down is equal which is something that you may not get with other teams. It’s easy to neglect the riders that have had problems during a season but that certainly isn’t the case here, they all really get looked after. It’s brilliant that all the riders are really prepared to help each other out too. There’s no competitiveness within the team. It’s a fantastic environment to be in.
You were with another great cycling team (Trek-Livestrong) before making the move to Team Sky, so what made you want to move?
I think ultimately I’ve been supported right from the start by the GB squad and British Cycling, from a very early age. Sky is a fantastic team that’s really moving forwards and pushing the boundaries. So the option I guess at the time was Team Radio Shack or Sky. The problem with the Radio Shack offer was that it was only definitely for 1 year, whereas Sky were offering a definite 2 years. Also Dave Brailsford [Team GB and Team Sky Performance Director] phoned me himself to talk about going moving there, but from Radio Shack it was my agent who phoned me to tell me about the contract offer on the table. I mean if the top guy can take the time out and ring me himself it says something about the team and the sort of respect they have for all the individual riders. There were a whole load of factors that contributed to the decision. The Olympics were part of it as well, that’s a big target for me, being part of the collaboration between Team Sky and the GB Team is massive, it means my race programme is completely tailored around being as perfectly prepared as I can be for the Olympics.
So are you still aiming for the Time Trial in the Olympics?
The way it works is if I ride the time trial I also have to ride the road race, so I think with me being a young rider, whilst I’ll aim for it I think a medal might be out of reach… well in the time trial I’m more likely to be an outside chance of getting a medal. So I’m turning a lot of my focus on being a team player in the road race for Cav [Mark Cavendish], and then it would be a case of making sure he does as well as possible, and then I’ll turn my focus to the Time Trial.
You must be feeling pretty good with your results lately (injury aside), I mean your performance at the Smithfield Nocturne in London and your result in the Commonwealth Games show you’ve got a lot of strength?
Yeah and I think it’s something I can develop as well, I mean come Rio [2016 Olympic Games] I hope to be a gold medal contender. When you’ve got the likes of Tony Martin and Cancellara [Fabian Cancellara] I’m just not at that level yet. I think there’s an age and strength issue. David Millar is a prime example of that: in the Commonwealth Games I showed I have the potential, I was only 3 seconds behind him and then the headwind just completely pulled me apart. It’s just pure strength which comes from the experience these guys have of riding loads of grand tours.
So is the grand tour circuit one of your main goals and aims at the moment? Sky are reasonably new to it, as you are, but the performance they’ve put in has been amazing?
Yeah, well before the Tour, I err… Well there was a possibility of doing the Vuelta [Vuelta a Espana]. Now that I’ve had this injury and that Brad [Bradley Wiggins] said he was gonna hit the Vuelta hard it was no longer an option. My first grand tour may well be the Giro [Giro d’Italia] next year. I did the under-23 Tour de l’Avenir last year which is the under-23 Tour de France basically.
Do you think the pressure of the Olympics being so close to the Tour de France next year will mean Team Sky have to rethink who will ride the tour to give Team GB a chance?
Yeah I mean it won’t effect me at all because I don’t think I’ll be a contender. I guess with the likes of Geraint [Thomas] and Brad there’s a few issues there and also there’s a lot of guys in a situation like Edvald Boasson Hagen, I mean what’s he gonna do? We just don’t know to be honest, I think I’ll leave it in the team managements hands, I certainly wouldn’t want to have to make those decisions.
What do you feel is your proudest moment to date, not necessarily the biggest accolade?
I won the under-23 European Championships last year, but eight weeks earlier I was on the floor with a broken shoulder blade and the doctors told me I’d be lucky to get on my bike let alone train for it. I was back on my bike faster than a shoulder blade break, I was on the turbo within a week and back on the road in ten days, and these were the haemophilia doctors saying this, I mean usually a break for me would be two to four weeks just in hospital.
So you’re one of these people who gets a kick out of proving someone wrong?
Yeah, there’s nothing like proving someone wrong to add a little bit of incentive. I have a fair bit of grit. I’m not stupid about it, all within reason. One of the doctors at this hospital (I think she usually works with children), she treated me like a child the whole time, that was the incentive there and then I guess.
As someone with haemophilia did you find as a child that you were discouraged from taking part in sports because of the dangers?
Yeah definitely. Certain sports, particularly contact sports are a big no-go which is understandable, I think it’s something I’m trying to change and encourage as well. I mean it applies to kids in general, there’s so many mainstream sports whereby people judge if you’re not good at them you’re never going to be a sportsman or athlete. My dad was a racing driver so as a kid I did a lot of go-karting, and then swimming, followed by sailing and I moved on to cycling. But I did the sports that you wouldn’t usually stumble across, you just have to have to opportunity to try it out, kids need to be shown and given taster session to get them outdoors. I mean for all I know I might be living next door to a potential Michael Schumacher, but without that chance a child may not have that interest ignited. Obviously that’s just an example, there are plenty of other sports out there that don’t cost a fortune to try out or get involved with.
So you’re really trying to raise the awareness of sport across the board?
Yeah, certainly in the haemophilia community. It’s easy for parents to be scared, they find out about their child having the condition and it’s a deep shock to them. They then just want to wrap the child up in cotton wool, but the fitter you are as a youngster the less problems you’ll have. It’s a bit of a double edged sword. All parents are protective of their children and don’t want to see them get hurt, but a child can gain their independence, strength and confidence through sport, which can help them later in life.
Were your parents very supportive towards you taking part in sport or was it something they worried about?
Yes they were very supportive, I wouldn’t be were I am at all if it wasn’t for them. When the doctors said that swimming was a great way of keeping my haemophilia at bay, Mum had me swimming five different swimming lessons in five different towns six times a week, she was finding as many swimming lessons as possible. Dad would take me go-karting every Sunday morning, he got me a small dinghy for sailing. They were really supportive for sports that I showed any kind of interest in.
Do they still get nervous when your out on your bike?
Oh yeah, yeah, [chuckles] if I’ve been out for longer than I said I would be my Mum will give me a ring. It wasn’t a problem when I was living in America, she didn’t know where I was, now I’m back in England it’s “Where are you? Are you at home yet?”, “No mum I’m at a cafe”, “Well make sure you give me a ring when you get home… Don’t forget!”, “Yes Mum”.
Though if I forget to take my medication Mum will be on my case. It rarely happens, but I know the day I slip up will be the day that Mum and Dad will be on to me. It’s good, I’m very lucky to have the parents that I have.
How do you go about giving children with haemophilia advice and encouragement to take up sport especially, with the understandable worries parents have? You do think parents should allow kids more freedom?
Yes, I’ve worked with the UK Haemophilia Society now for some time, but now I’m starting to work quite closely with the World Federation of Haemophilia. I’ve done a few interviews for them and basically I’m just trying to share my story and experiences with others. Actually I’ve had a guy on Facebook contact me from the Ukraine recently whose son has been diagnosed and he found an interview and article and sent copies of it to me. It was in Russian which was pretty surreal. He said (and I’ve had a few emails like this and it’s really cool) that my story has helped them. I know how traumatic it was for my parents when they found out, I was 18 months old, it was pretty grim for them. The doctor at the time painted the worst picture possible. If they’d known then what they know now and what sort of life I could have and achieve, then life would have been a lot easier and a lot less stressful for them.
It also impacts on siblings, I have a little sister and there were some rough times, they’d worry that my little sister Lois would get left out, but I’ve got fantastic parents and Lois is a bit of a hard nut herself. We’re all fine, all reasonably normal [laughs].
What’s your favourite discipline and do you prefer road or track?
Time trial, definitely!… and I have to say road is my preference.
Will you be doing any of the Revolutions at Manchester Velodrome this season?
Yeah, I’ll be doing as many as I can, I’m sure there’ll be one or two that clash with Sky training camps but I’ll be there. I do enjoy them.
A lot of your team have come through the British Cycling Academy as you did, what do you feel are the main benefits you’ve had from the process?
They taught us to look after ourselves and behave like pro riders before we reached that level. I noticed when I went to Livestrong I could actually drop my levels of discipline, whereas a lot of the Livestrong riders that had just come in from junior squads, or just racing in other teams, they had to suddenly raise their game, whereas I could relax a little bit. They covered things like self discipline to organisation, food and obviously training. The academy really teaches you to look after yourself and to be disciplined as well. It also give you a lot of independence with the living arrangements. It’s pretty hard as well, we’d have days in the winter which were grim and you had to survive on just under sixty quid a week. That was just for food basically, but when you’re doing 25 hours a week training you tend to eat quite a bit. You’d have days where you wake up pretty early, ride into the velodrome any weather, have a two hour Italian lesson, then lunch which you had to make yourself and bring in, then a three hour track session, then dinner that you’d had to make yourself and bring with you, then your track league… And then you’d ride home at 11 o’clock at night. To go to bed and get up the next day and do it all over again.
On one occasion, in fact one of my first track sessions, my phone battery had run flat over night. I’d been making a number of calls in the evening and forgotten to charge the phone and I used it as my alarm clock each morning. I ended up missing the first track session. I rang up Rod Ellingworth and said, “Sorry about that, I’ll make it in for the second session though,” and he said, “No, you’ll come into the velodrome now!” and when I got there I had three cars to clean lined up in the car park. I went out and bought myself an alarm clock that night. I wasn’t going to have that happen again! At age 18 it was an eye opener for me, I soon learned. The average kid is starting their first job or heading to university or college and able to mess around a bit or have an off day, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. Our accommodation was in Fallowfield, Manchester which is student central and the flats were above a Wetherspoon’s, next to a nightclub and opposite another nightclub, temptation everywhere. That sorted out who were the ones that were going to make it, though some of the guys that went out did make it through. It was just knowing your limits and getting the balance, there was a time and a place for it.
Talking of going out, do you get much time for a social life? And if and when you do does it revolve around a cycling set?
Erm… The academy was pretty grim at times but it was what you needed to do. Training in Italy was good but it was tough, eight guys who all thought they were gods gift to cycling living under one roof, there were some fireworks but for the most part we all got on. We were stuck in a small town, nobody spoke English. We ate, slept and trained together, that was pretty tough, no escape from each other. Then I went to Livestrong and suddenly I was in America! Living in the States was great because everything they say about the English accent and the girls is absolutely true [laughs]. I also found I was racing better when I was happier. Now I’m back in England I’ve got a good group of mates that live around me, I don’t go nuts, a lot of my nights out are for dinner or down the pub, a cafe or trips to the cinema. I go to the cinema a lot because I’ve got a good friend who’s a bit of a film buff. It got to the point that the only film we hadn’t seen from the current listings was Kung-Fu Panda. He was still up for it but I said, “Nah, this is starting to reach new levels of sadness, we’re gonna have to do something different tonight! No films about martial art bears!”
I take it fairly steady in the season because I know that’s what I need to do. I’m reasonably disciplined about it, the team helps you as much as they can, but at the end of the day it’s up to you. You have a nutritionist that comes round and tells you you can afford to lose one or two kilos to burn off your fat levels but ultimately it’s down to you to make the effort, they can only do so much. The same applies to training and getting yourself ready for races. All the facilities are there, it’s up to you how much you make the most of the opportunity, they can’t make you get out on your bike and put the extra hours in. If you don’t perform you don’t get into races, you don’t get your contract renewed and then you’ll never win! You’ve got everything laid out for you, you just have to grab hold of it and make the most of it.
If you sustain an injury how do they control your medication during a race, are they able to treat your condition on the spot?
Well the beauty of racing with the team now is that there’s always a team doctor at the races, he’s aware of my condition and holds my medication, and when I come down he’s there to scrape me up off the floor, he makes sure I’m alright. It’s all handled really professionally, and the team have really taken it upon themselves to learn everything they can about my condition because it’s pretty unusual and I think I’m the only one in the pro peloton with it. The medication has to be taken every other day but when I fall or get an injury I take more. The medication gets me up to about sixty percent of the levels of a normal person, which is enough to keep any problems like a minor injury caused by crashing at bay. Then if I do find myself on the floor I just take extra. My drugs aren’t controlled substances, it’s not the same as say someone in the pro peloton with asthma, they would have to fill out forms to allow them to use their inhaler. If you’re going to require a drug that can be abused and used as a performance enhancer then you have to fill in a form. A lot of the asthmatic medication would make you test positive. If you have to take a drug that will cause you to test positive then the doctors will give you a form that’s called a therapeutic use exemption form, which they hand in with a sample that says,“This guy’s on this drug, but it’s fine because he’s got asthma.”
Where’s your favourite training ride and what are your favourite stop-off treats?
Oh… A massive cake! I guess I like it a little bit too much. A pre-breakfast ride: I get up, have coffee and then ride on empty for about and hour and luckily about an hour away from me is pretty much the best cafe in Essex so that’s where I spend a lot of my time. It’s called The Blue Egg, the cakes are excellent. I usually have the date and oat slice because I kind of convince myself that it sounds healthy, it’s probably got a lot of butter and sugar in it but they don’t tell you about that, so what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you I guess.
What advice would you give to kids interested in getting involved in cycling?
Get out and try all forms of racing and see which discipline suits you. I think kids should try lots of different sports too, I mean when I first started cycling I was swimming as well and I think it really helped me on the bike. I mean Time Trials were my thing, it was all I did until I was a junior. I first tried the track at about 15, I then started doing it with the junior GB squad at 17.
British National Time Trial Champion
5th Overall Tour of Denmark
3rd in Stage 5 (Time Trial)
3rd Overall – Prologue – Ster Zlm Toer (and best young rider prize)
1st Smithfield Nocturne
1st European Time Trial Championships U23
1st Stage 5 Cascade Cycling Classic (USA)
Tour of Utah
2nd Stage 2
Tour de l’Avenir
2nd in Prologue
2nd Commonwealth Games Time Trial
1st Chrono des Nations U23
1st Richmond Grand Prix
1st British Time Trial Championships U23
7th World Time Trial Championships U23
11th European Time Trial Championships U23
3rd Abergavenny International Criterium (UCI 1.2)
4th British U23 Road Race Championships
3rd British Senior 10 mile Time Trial Championships
1st Team Time Trial Tour d’Alsace (UCI 2.2)
1st British Time Trial Championships U23
1st Perfs Pedal Road Race
1st Overall British Premier Calendar U23 Champion
1st Rudy Project Time Trial Series
3rd British Senior 10 mile Time Trial Championships
4th British Senior 25 mile Time Trial Championships
1st British Junior Road Race Championships
1st British Junior 10 mile Time Trial Championships
1st British Junior 25 mile Time Trial Championships
1st Tour of Switzerland 7.7km Time Trial
1st European Junior Team Pursuit Championships
My thanks to Alex and all the photographers.
©Copyright 2011 Anna Magrath @ Cycling Shorts. Please do not reproduce any content without permission from myself or the photographers.