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Alex Dowsett

Endura's renegade speed merchant

Story by Endura February 2nd, 2017

It doesn’t matter where you meet Alex Dowsett - professional cycling’s stand-up guy is always up.

Straight outta Maldon, all stubble and sports cars, there is nevertheless a maverick streak that runs through his character; an inner defiance cultivated from the earliest age, as plain as day in his death-or-glory attacks from the bunch, or the balls-to-the-wall suffering of his time-trial triumphs. It’s a renegade spirit that has made him a perfect fit for Endura.

It could be that you chance upon Dowsett in a hotel in Pamplona, at an off-season gathering of Movistar Team, aka the world’s number one professional cycling team. You might find him in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 wind tunnel in Brackley, Northamptonshire, testing Endura’s latest skin suit, or making the minute adjustments to his riding position that could mean the difference between winning and losing in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour.

“Endura make my life easier. The faster the suit gets, the easier it is for me. The levels they have gone to are phenomenal.”

Perhaps you'll see him at the National Cycling Centre in Manchester, scene of his Hour Record-breaking ride in May 2015. His visits to the velodrome are to understand better how he might ride further, now that his own mark has been surpassed, should destiny again come calling.

Perhaps you’ve met him at a race, whether it be a professional engagement, or the Maldon CC ‘club 10’, which he rides to stay in touch with the grassroots of the sport, turning out in full Movistar Team kit for the simple pleasure of inspiring others.

The setting is immaterial. Dowsett is always open, approachable, good-humoured, and, when the speed suit goes on, ready to give his best. That he is the reigning Commonwealth time-trial champion, a Grand Tour stage winner, and formerly the holder of one of cycling’s blue riband records matters little. Dowsett is no diva, even if he, more than most in the exclusive club that is professional cycling’s top tier, has an excuse to behave as such.

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blood brother

“You see it now in a lot of young haemophiliacs,” Dowsett says, in oblique reference to the defiance that makes him such a formidable competitor. “You spend a childhood being told what you can’t do.”

Dowsett does not base his opinion solely on his own experience. As founder of the Little Bleeders charity, he remains acutely aware of the challenges faced by young people suffering a condition that prevents blood from clotting. His parents were warned not to allow such an active child to try sport. The risk of injury and bleeding was deemed too great.

“There’s a life-sized, plastic ‘me’ - an exact copy of me in the wind tunnel - so I don’t have to sacrifice training.”

“I understand now the irony of hurtling down a mountain at 70-odd mph,” Dowsett says, with a grin, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Those who have seen him ride would struggle to imagine a different occupation, even if professional cycling was far from his childhood thoughts.

“Cycling wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was a kid. I never watched it; never was interested in the history of it. The velodrome stuff at the Olympics looked cool, but motor racing was my thing. My dad used to race cars, and that was what I wanted to do.”

There is still something of the petrol head about Dowsett. He arrives for wind tunnel testing in Brackley in a Mercedes sports car that doesn’t look out of place at the home of the German marque’s most ambitious endeavour.

Dowsett remains close to his family. His parents put him on the path to sporting success by refusing to allow his condition to compromise his life. They tried him in a range of different sports, including sailing, even if he was the only child on the water forced to wear a helmet, in case of boom strike.

When his father took up mountain biking, Dowsett chanced upon a pathway to a different life. Things escalated from Thursday night trail rides to taking part in Maldon CC time-trials. His early promise flourished at the GHS finals, where, competing as a 14-year-old in the U16 class, he finished second to Ian Stannard.

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The endura difference

Dowsett has come a long way since graduating from British Cycling’s vaunted Olympic Academy and entering the professional ranks with Team Sky. His switch to Movistar Team was seen by some as a gamble, but it has brought opportunities that he might not have received with his former employer; a team so relentlessly focused around a single goal.

Movistar Team is a different, if no less successful, culture. It has topped the UCI WorldTour rankings each year since Dowsett joined them in 2013. In three of his four years with the Spanish squad, he has been crowned British time-trial champion, and, in 2015, broke the World Hour Record.

“Before my last attempt at the Hour Record, there were 52 or 53 suits made. Ideally, I would have tested all 53 of them, but that would take a week. With the mannequin, they can.”

There is another association that has helped propel Dowsett to the top of his game; one that coincides with his tenure with Movistar Team.

“Endura makes my life easier,” he says, with a smile. “The faster the suit gets, the easier it is for me.”

Time-trialists are cycling’s tech heads, riders who, by sustained periods of solitary suffering, develop an intimate understanding of aerodynamic drag, and the importance of defeating it. In Endura and Simon Smart, he has found willing accomplices.

Dowsett describes Smart as a genius and praises Endura’s unstinting commitment to his cause, one that extended to making the suit in which he won the Commonwealth Games, even when there was no obligation to do so.

He was unhappy with the garment supplied by the England team’s official partner, so Endura stepped in. The rider, driving to Glasgow for the “Commies”, called in at Endura’s headquarters in Livingston a day ahead of time to try on a new suit, made in the colours of the English national team. Dowsett credits his victory, one achieved at the expense of a world class field, and by just eight seconds, to that same garment.

“If I had worn a mediocre suit, I would not have won the Commonwealth Games,” he says, simply. “That’s the difference.”

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doppelgängers and scanatars

There have been other notable victories against the clock too, including a stage victory in last season’s Tour of Poland, where he saw off the challenge of team-mate Jonathan Castroviejo, the European time-trial champion, to claim the final stage.

“The levels that Endura have gone to to produce the fastest suit possible are phenomenal,” Dowsett says. “There’s a life-sized, plastic ‘me’ - an exact copy of me in the tunnel - so I don’t have to sacrifice training.”

“I have a close relationship with Endura now, which is great. I can ask for almost anything, throw ideas out there, and they’re taken on board.”

Dowsett’s doppelgänger is perhaps the most tangible token of Endura’s commitment. The mannequin he refers to was the inspiration of Endura founder Jim McFarlane, who chanced upon a highly sophisticated body scanning technology, and the ‘scanatars’ produced from it, in an entirely different context.

A visit to the Human Solutions laboratory in Kaiserslautern, Germany followed, with McFarlane, Dowsett, and Smart working alongside Dr Helga Gäbel to scan Dowsett and his bike at a resolution of 4m data points. The unnervingly accurate outcome - a life-sized mannequin that even shares Dowsett’s hairstyle - now does duty in Smart’s wind tunnel when the rider is away.

“Before the last attempt [at the Hour Record], there were 52 or 53 suits made,” Dowsett recalls. “Ideally, I would have tested all 53 of them, but that would take a week. With the mannequin, they can.”

He remembers the approach taken to a project dubbed The Perfect Hour as “uncompromising”. He personally tested 14 skin suits; a relentless schedule inside the wind tunnel, made in addition to his training out on the road. Uncompromising, however, is the default for Endura and Drag2Zero.

Dowsett describes a “collective desire to go as fast as we can” and it is this desire that underpins a close relationship between the main protagonists. McFarlane and Smart were on hand to help Dowsett into his speedsuit moments before The Perfect Hour, when the rider was stood, in his own words, “butt naked, in just a pair of socks.”

“It’s a close relationship we have now, which is great. I can ask for almost anything, throw ideas out there, and they’re taken on board.”

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a renegade among renegades

The misfortune of injury forced Dowsett to miss his greatest target of 2016 - the Giro d’Italia - but he will hope to return to Italy this season for the 100th edition. It was in the Corsa Rosa that he scored the biggest win of his road career, finishing ahead of a certain Bradley Wiggins to win the eighth stage of the 2013 edition.

Last year, the sudden and unexpected surfacing of a metal plate in his collarbone caused him to abandon his plans for the Giro, and forced him, briefly, into an uncharacteristically pessimistic state. Dowsett might be excused a moment of downheartedness - the shock of seeing a metal plate breaking through the skin would darken even the sunniest outlook - but renegade spirits like his are not easily broken.

“If I had worn a mediocre suit, I would not have won the Commonwealth Games. That’s the difference.”

Dowsett has another, significant goal for 2017, one he has mentioned publicly, but is not at liberty to discuss in detail. It is likely to require further sessions in the Drag2Zero wind tunnel, and a resumption of the close working relationship with McFarlane, as Endura throws the full weight of its in-house production and cutting edge technical resource behind the accelerated programme of development demanded by such an endeavour.

“It’s great to be involved,” Dowsett says of his relationship with Endura. The rider who stops by for skin suits en route to winning Commonwealth titles, and who blasts through development cycles in pursuit of World Hour Records, is likely again to be at the heart of the hugely successful Scottish-Iberian alliance that is Endura’s relationship with Movistar Team.

That an unashamed Essex boy, all floppy hair and megawatt smile, should play such a pivotal role is, at first glance, the most renegade aspect of all. Add the inspirational triumphs of a haemophiliac overturning the odds to establish a sporting career at the highest level, and there is a more obvious philosophical connection between Dowsett and Endura’s other mavericks: the likes of Obree, MacAskill, and Moolman-Pasio - characters not known for backing away from challenges.

It’s a philosophy known at Endura’s Livingston HQ as Renegade Progress. Dowsett’s own progression in the coming season might come to be seen as the most renegade of all.


Footnote: Words by Timothy John. Images by Benedict Campbell
Brackley, United Kingdom