Jun 20, 2017

Alex Dowsett talks about his career

Tony James talks to Alex Dowsett about his haemophilia and his competitive cycling career

He has beaten Sir Bradley Wiggins, held a world record, and struck gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but Alex Dowsett’s greatest victory has been over a potentially life-threatening medical condition which has confined lesser mortals to a wheelchair.

Dowsett has haemophilia, an incurable condition which stops the blood clotting properly. Head injuries can be fatal and internal bleeding can permanently damage joints and muscles, and yet he regularly swoops at 70 mph down a mountainside, hurtles around the world’s cycle velodromes and, thanks to a combination of modern medicine and relentless ambition, lives to tell the tale.

Today at 28, one of the world’s most successful road and track racing cyclists, Dowsett is the only elite sportsman with haemophilia, which has made him an inspiration to fellow-sufferers who previously feared active sport was too much of a risk.

To give practical help, Dowsett has founded a charity, the appropriately-named Little Bleeders, which supports young haemophiliacs in sport and stresses the importance of physical activity.

“The message is about sending out positive words because in life you can be dealt a very rough hand, particularly in childhood,” Dowsett says.

“But it’s what you do afterwards that counts. You can either let it hold you back, or accept it and lead a better life. I want to show the younger generation that what you can achieve with haemophilia is nigh-on limitless.”

The cheery, approachable Essex boy has certainly done that. A multiple time trial champion, and a lead rider with the top Spanish road-racing team Movistar, Dowsett is determined to get to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I am only 28 and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t get better,” he says. “I’m good at maintaining my concentration, judging my effort and pacing it well.”

It could have been a very different story. Dowsett was diagnosed with haemophilia at 18 months after bruises from even gentle contact rang alarm bells with his parents. “They noticed that even picking me up for a cuddle left me with black bruises.”

The early years were hard. Just brushing against a door could cause bleeding in a knee joint and he could be on crutches for a few days. “In this situation most parents’ instincts would be to wrap their children in cotton wool but mine did everything they could to help me become physically strong.

“Primary school was tough because I either went in on crutches or had my arm in a sling, but I had never known anything different so my parents were more affected than I was. To me, taking medication was only like eating porridge every morning.”

By now, Dowsett was having preventative injections every two days which made it safer to take part in sport. But not everyone was convinced, and at school, Dowsett was barred from rugby, hockey and football because it was feared a bump on the head could kill him.

He was advised to stick to chess or learn a musical instrument but was determined to take up a sport. “I just had this desire to be very good at something and didn’t care what it was,” he remembers.

Dowsett says 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 sports, including sailing. “I was the only kid to wear a crash helmet in case the boom hit my head.”

Strangely, cycling didn’t interest the young Dowsett. “I never watched it on TV. The velodrome stuff at the Olympics looked cool, but motor-racing was my thing. My dad used to race cars and that’s what I wanted to do.”

He took up swimming but soon found it wasn’t what he wanted. “I wasn’t a natural swimmer and at 11 asked my father if he could join his mountain-biking group.” His dad said yes. Later Dowsett borrowed a road bike from a friend of his father - and found the sport that would change his life.

From the start, he excelled at cycling. At 14 he came second in the under-17 schoolboy national championships, was talentspotted by the British Olympic Development team and first represented his country at 16.

Looking back, Dowsett gives much of the credit for his successful fight against adversity to his father, former British touring car championship driver Peter Dowsett. “He used to share his car-racing stories and it made me feel that I wanted to be able to share the same sort of stories with my children. He gave me the passion for racing.”

Elite cycling can be a contact sport and there have been horrendous injuries on road and track, but while acutely aware of the risks, Dowsett doesn’t allow them to interfere with his ruthless ambition.

“When I cycle I don’t worry about my haemophilia. If you worry about going too fast and coming off, that’s not good.” And although he’s suffered injuries including broken collar-bones, shoulder-blade, elbow and ribs, there have been no lifethreatening reactions thanks to his strict medical regime.

Dowsett has hemophilia A - the most common type affecting one in 5,000 males - which means he lacks the essential bloodclotting protein Factor VIII.

In fact his natural levels of Factor VIII are almost zero and he has a special dispensation from the sport’s authorities to inject himself before an event with an engineered version of the protein.

In a sport in which the use of needles is banned because of its drug-tainted past, Dowsett has occasionally had some explaining to do. “When I was riding for Team Sky they didn’t actually warn any of the riders that I was a haemophiliac and what that involved.

“So when one of my teammates walked into the dressingroom before a race and said: ‘Alex, what the hell are you doing?’ I had to give him a medical lecture!

“I top up my medication before races and the back-up team carry extra, should I be injured. I would still bleed, but no more severely than someone without my condition.”

He trains around six hours a day six days a week and says cycling is the perfect sport for haemophiliacs. “It’s similar to swimming in that it has a fluid motion with no actual impact on the joints. Running, for instance, would have caused real problems.”

In 2014, Dowsett took gold in the Commonwealth Games cycling time trial and the following year, broke the prestigious Hour world record, clocking up 52.937km in the Manchester Velodrome, only for Bradley Wiggins to break it a month later. Now Dowsett wants the record back but he’s in no hurry. “I hope it will be possible before the end of the year but everything has to be perfect for the attempt because the ante is so high.”

Meanwhile he’s focusing his attention on his place in the Spanish Movistar team which has topped the UCI World Tour rankings every year since he joined in 2013. There’s also the Commonwealth Games to look forward to next year, and the Olympics.

Hopefully retirement is still years away, but Dowsett already has plans for the future. He’s a partner in Cyclism, a performance cycling business that coaches amateur to professional-level riders.

“Cycling has become a midlife crisis solution, predominately for men who are now thinking of buying a £10,000 bike instead of a bright yellow Porsche. We try to help people keep healthy, have a good time on a bike and forget about status symbols.”

Dowsett admits he might still pick the bright yellow Porsche. From childhood he’s been an unashamed petrol-head and is seriously considering a career in motor-sport when his cycling days are over.

Another needlessly perilous challenge? “When you have haemophilia you spend a lifetime being told what you can’t do,” is Dowsett’s answer. “It gives you a burning desire to prove everyone wrong. I would never have got where I am without that.”

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