Home is where Downey’s heart is, but all eyes still on Tokyo

Home is where Downey’s heart is, but all eyes still on Tokyo
Mark Downey of Ireland celebrates after winning gold in the 2017 UCI Track Cycling World Cup in Cali, Colombia. Picture: Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

For five years, Mark Downey had been living life with his thumb on the fast forward button. Now everything is on pause.

Still a teenager when he left home for the continent and life on the road, the Dromore man has made two of himself ever since with commitments on the track for Cycling Ireland juggled with the twin path of road cycling for a succession of pro and amateur teams.

Trips home have been a rare treat - flying visits mostly - but he had squeezed in a bit of time back in Co Down earlier this month before the coronavirus swept across Europe, wiping out everyone’s calendars and booking him in for an extended stay.

“I absolutely love getting home and it’s nice to be here, given the circumstances. It’s a matter of staying home, staying safe, and looking after each other at the moment. We’re having dinner together every night, which is great.

"I haven’t really done this since I was 18, so I have five years of stories to get out there,” he said.

His latest may be his best.

Downey’s father Seamus represented Ireland on the bike at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. 

A celebrated rider in his own time, he likes to claim that getting to LA was as straightforward as taking a phone call from someone in the federation and asking whether he fancied the trip.

His younger son could only wish it were that simple. Downey and Felix English were thrown together in the Madison event more or less by accident at a World Cup in the Netherlands, but soon proved themselves to be one of the top pairings in the relay event that the former has described as ‘carnage’.

As high as fifth in the rankings in 2017, their Olympic qualifying bid suffered a false start. 

Downey missed the first two World Cups as his brother Sean — himself a Commonwealth bronze medallist in 2010 — was getting married. Add in the odd crash, a new coach, and other changes and tweaks, and they were close to losing touch.

Downey had even started looking ahead to Paris 2024 at one stage.

Just qualifying for the World Championships in Germany earlier this month was a major achievement because, while their form had picked up as the latest season spun on, they trailed Portugal and Hong Kong by a country mile in the race for one Olympic spot come the day of reckoning in Berlin.

“Felix looked over at me as soon as we woke up that morning and said: ‘What’s the odds on us doing this today?’ I said: ‘Do you want my honest answer?’ 

I reckoned that there was maybe a 30% chance that we could pull it off, and he agreed,” said Downey.

They had two choices: hit the front all-guns-blazing, or sit and wait and hope to make hay at the back end of the 50k, 200-lap grind. 

They chose the latter, showing a remarkable composure under pressure in letting their challengers score early points but burn themselves out before timing their own assault to perfection.

Ultimate selection for Tokyo will be decided by a selection panel, but Downey has done all he can for now and, in doing so, he has added further to the storied Banbridge Cycling Club tradition which extends beyond his own family to the likes of former Rás winner Tommy Evans and 1972 Olympian Noel Teggart.

It seems a lifetime ago now, but Berlin happened at the start of March.

Now here we are at the end of the month with the Olympics postponed until the summer of 2021 and the entire planet coming to terms with a deadly threat and the ripple effects it has created.

Had the world continued to turn as before then, Downey would have been ticking off a succession of endurance races on the continent with his Côte d’Armor team right about now.

A training camp in Majorca was to be next.

Best-laid plans... Others are being made.

Among the last trips he took before the current restrictions were imposed on both sides of the border was one to the Sport Ireland Institute in Abbotstown, where he sat down with English and framed some thoughts for the Games in Japan.

“Me and Felix sat down and agreed that if we have a special day and we get it right then we go to win,” said the 23-year old. 

“We just haven’t clicked the last year or so, but it was working perfectly a few years ago so we just need to get back there.

“I put down on my piece of paper a goal to finish in the top five. I don’t think that’s being cocky or arrogant. 

"OK, we haven’t been anywhere near top five this year, but I know what I need to do, I just don’t think I’m at that level at the moment, but I know what I need to do to get there.”

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