This article is part of Cycling Weekly's new 'the ride that changed me' series. Our writers hear from a range of professional and ex-professional cyclists about that one day on the bike that changed the trajectory of their career for good.
Even for a successful WorldTour rider looking back on their life in cycling, a ride on the small stage can have the most profound effect, it turns out.
For Alex Dowsett, his ride in the GHS national youth championship when he was 14 – less than a year after he first began racing – turned out to be unexpectedly formative.
"I started racing and within a year we did the GHS, [Ian] Stannard won it. He was 16, I was second – I was 14. The rest of the top 10 was 16 years old," Dowsett says.
Stannard of course, was the rider who would go on to ride with Dowsett at Team Sky and is now an assistant sports director at its latest incarnation, Ineos Grenadiers. The pair were to become good friends, but at the GHS in 2003, Dowsett hadn't a clue who he was.
The GHS champs, named after George Herbert Stancer – former CTC president and holder of numerous records – was a revelation for Dowsett, who had spent much of his childhood seeking out a sport he could excel in.
As a haemophiliac it needed to be a low-impact sport too, and Dowsett had tried both swimming and sailing, with comparatively moderate success.
"I couldn't win a race at club level," he says of swimming, and as for dinghy sailing - "20th from last was the best I did".
"For those sports I'd just look at the front and think 'that's too far away, this isn't my thing'."
It was already becoming clear that cycling was different – something he was really good at. But the 2003 GHS championship confirmed it.
"In that village hall I looked at that top 10; there were a load of names I didn't recognise cos they were all older than me and I was like, 'oh, it's my thing'," he says.
In Dowsett's words, he qualified for the event "horribly", riding fixed on a course that had undergone a last-minute change. It meant starting the championship number 33, leaving him with a two-hour wait after he had recorded his 21.12 for 10 miles – a personal best time which put him in the hot seat by some margin.
"I just had to sit and wait for everyone to come in," he says. "I'll never forget, I was quicker than Stannard to the halfway mark as well."
But ultimately, he recalls, "I remember they wrote 'Stannard [on the results board]'... they wrote '2', and then they wrote '0'. Oh well… It would have been nice to have won the whole bloody thing."
But he had been fastest of all the 14 and 15 year-olds, and beaten into second only by 16-year-old Stannard.
In his quest to find 'his' sport, Dowsett says he had been strongly influenced – perhaps even more than he realised at the time – by something his dad had said.
"There is a Michael Schumacher level of racecar driving talent walking down Chelmsford High Street, Malden High Street right now, but until they get the chance to realise it'll just remain untapped potential," his dad had told him.
"I think that spoke to me probably more than my dad thought it would. So I was sort of on a quest to try sports," he explains.
And the GHS event saw him fulfil that quest.
"'I've now found what I was put on this earth…' sounds a bit religious," he trails off, "but I've now found what my dad said that I'm… good at."
Alex Dowsett is the author of 'Bloody Minded' published by Bloomsbury Sport. Join us for the next instalment of 'the ride that changed me' in a fortnight's time.
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