If you’ve ever ridden a time trial on one of Britain’s many out and back A-road courses you’ll know even a slight breeze can turn them into a race with two faces: floating one way, soul-crushing drudgery the other.
It’s a feeling British time triallist Alex Dowsett knows only too well, but nothing could have prepared him for the extreme highs and lows of 2019. Dowsett clinched a sixth national TT title last year and finished fifth in both the European Championships and the World Championships in Yorkshire.
In the background though, he found himself in a bind. Contracted to Katusha until 2021, he was unable to secure a spot elsewhere as rumours that the team was in crisis persisted.
“I’ve never had stress like it,” Dowsett says. “It’s not pleasant and I really hope it never happens again.
“I’ve never felt so vulnerable in my job — if the team had folded as late as it possibly could have, it would have been far too late for me to find anything at WorldTour level.”
Trouble started in 2018, when Dowsett and his team-mates were told the outfit had struggled to find sponsorship for 2019 and things got worse when their talisman, Marcel Kittel, announced his retirement, mid-season. Then at the Tour de France rumours began to circulate that German hair product company Alpecin and bike sponsor Canyon would be taking their investment elsewhere.
While riders out of contract were given the green light to explore opportunities with other teams, a handful of riders including Dowsett still had contracts with Katusha-Alpecin and weren’t free to look for new contracts despite the team facing closure.
“We were asking around and everywhere was full,” Dowsett says. “We were told by the team, ‘You have a contract, you have to respect it.’ We talked to other teams anyway, we were trying to say to teams, ‘Is there interest in Dowsett?’ and a few teams said, ‘Yep, is he available?’ but we didn’t know.”
Then in early October, Professional Continental outfit Israel Cycling Academy announced they had taken over Katusha-Alpecin’s WorldTour licence and the two teams would be merging.
Dowsett began talks with Israel Cycling Academy team manager Kjell Carlstrom around the start of the Worlds in Yorkshire, cementing his place on the team with his storming ride in the TT.
“For me, I simply went across with the merger and I think the Worlds consolidated why I belong here, or why I’ll be of use,” he says.
“Sometimes my role can be overlooked when I’m leading out for a sprinter who’s had a rough year, like Marcel. You do a lot of work for no result, but the result is often reflective of the work that’s been put in and if there’s no result it can reflect badly on the team.”
During these difficult times, Dowsett had been putting in some of his best performances on the TT bike, starting with the National Time Trial Champs in Norfolk, where he was pushed hard by John Archibald (Ribble Pro Cycling), with Dowsett taking victory by six seconds after Archibald dropped a chain.
Dowsett explains: “The Nationals was a shock and I got into a bit of hot water for saying that Dan Bigham and John Archibald lacked some grunt. I never meant it offensively.
“Those boys have changed the game and it’s admirable. John’s a hell of a bike rider and you saw the way they rode at
the Worlds. They punch so far above their weight.”
But Dowsett believes the biggest factor in his improved performance is a move to Andorra in the Pyrenees.
“I moved to altitude and I think that’s helped,” he says. “I think the change of scenery has helped. My numbers have been consistent, I’ve had less bad days.”
Looking ahead to the new season with Israel Start-Up Nation, as Israel Cycling Academy has rebranded, Dowsett is excited about the prospect of hand-picking kit to improve his TT.
He says: “What has impressed me so far with Israel is the willingness to choose the equipment that’s fastest and if something isn’t good enough they seem very willing to either make sure it is good enough or find something else that is.
“I asked Kjell if I can use Speedplay pedals. I used them in 2010 and there’s clear evidence for them being quick. He simply said, ‘If that’s what you want to use because it’s quicker then you can use it.’
“One of the sponsors also has access to a wind tunnel.”
Dowsett is the front-runner to represent GB in the time trial in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, a prospect that he is relishing: “With Team GB we did a lot of work before the Worlds. Having the full support of Team GB is quite phenomenal. I’ve ticked a lot of boxes in my career so far but the Olympics was one I thought was going to elude me. It still could, obviously. However, it could be back on the table and that’s a really exciting prospect.
“The Olympics for Great Britain is huge and I’d kill to be there. But being British, you don’t go to the Olympics just to ride round, you go there because you can medal.”
But this does mean Dowsett will have to delay another of his ambitions — a tilt at the Hour record he once held?
“It’s been on hold for a long time,” he says. “Here I’ve got to find my feet first, but ultimately the Olympics is once every four years so that has my full focus.”
On his prospects for 2020, Dowsett echoes the sentiments of every good time triallist: “There’s always more gains.”