He’s the man who smashed cycling’s World Hour Record in 2015, as well as winning an individual time trial stage of the Giro d'Italia, and the UK’s time trial Championship five times. But when he was growing up the Doctors told him he should never do a sport beyond swimming – because he is a haemophiliac. This means his blood doesn’t clot normally, so injuries the rest of us would shrug off, could potentially be fatal.
So, how did Dowsett, the adidas Sport Eyewear athlete, defy the entire medical profession to become a professional cyclist, and what does this tell us about not being defined by our limitations?
RISING When you were growing up with haemophilia, what things did the doctors allow you to do?
AD ‘I didn't want to be a pro cyclist when I was a kid; I wanted to race cars like my dad. Sport didn't really register, wasn’t on my radar at all. I used to swim a lot because the doctors recommended it for haemophiliacs. I was part of the local swimming club but wasn’t very good. I ran at school: I was fast because of how healthy I was with swimming, but I wasn’t naturally talented at it. We were doing sailing at the time; the sailing comes with a few risks, so I was the kid with the helmet on – the only one – just because of my haemophilia.’
RISING If you’re told you can’t do something, rather than: ‘These are the risks, now make up your own mind,’ does that ‘typecast’ you into a certain role early in life?
AD ‘Yes, and the way our schooling system works an emphasis is put on football, and sports which are still quite dangerous for haemophiliacs. But for me, my parents saw that I wanted to do sport, so they were like: ‘Well let’s do safer sports’. That’s why what I do now, is largely down to the haemophilia: I wouldn't be a pro cyclist if it wasn’t for my haemophilia.’
RISING In a sense your illness has forced you to fight for something that the rest of us take for granted, and given you a path to purpose too?
AD ‘Yeah. I think, if I didn't have haemophilia, I wouldn’t have a stab at it, and a ‘try and prove everyone wrong’ attitude. When I was a kid I was told what I couldn’t do a lot of the time, I think about – and you see it in a lot of haemophiliacs – “What can I do to really prove myself, and prove people wrong.”’
‘I wouldn't be a pro cyclist if it wasn't for my haemophilia’
RISING So how did you start competing on road bikes?
AD ‘I started mountain biking with my dad, obviously all padded up, and one of the guys had a road bike, and I asked if I could have a go. I jumped on and did a few time trials like what I do now, just a bit slower. They said I was good, and then went to the Under 17 Nationals and finished second when I was 14. I remember seeing the leader board: Ian Stannard won it, he was 16, I was 14, and the rest of the top ten were 16. I think that was the moment where I was like: “Okay I'm good at this, I'm going to stick at this one,” and dropped sailing, swimming, everything because of the buzz I was getting from being very good at something. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy being out on my bike in the sunshine now, but for me it’s about being very good at something and proving people from my childhood wrong.’
RISING So part of the race isn’t even on the road, in a way?
AD ‘Oh, massively. In 2010 I broke my shoulder blade in Holland. My first bone break, which as a kid I was told: “If you break a bone you're going to be in hospital for a month to control the internal bleeding.” The nurse said: “You have plenty of rest,” I said: “I’ve got European Championships in seven weeks,” and she replied: “Oh, you won't be doing that.” I was: “No, no, no I need to do it, and I need to train for it as well.” “No, no, no. No chance.” So I got back on the bike seven days after I broke it, and won the European Championships seven weeks later. I remember being stood on the podium, and all I could think about was proving this nurse wrong. She probably had no idea, but that’s the way I work.’
RISING Cycling is an endurance sport, so tenacity and a bloody-minded refusal to give up must be a useful thing to develop?
AD ‘It’s like with the Paris-Roubaix that I rode in April – that’s probably the toughest one-day race I’ve ever done. Every team's got their thing that they do well, and for us it's mountains, grand tours, GC, team time trials. No one’s going to bat an eyelid if we pull out [of Paris-Roubaix] and that’s quite a difficult thing. You think: “All this suffering could end now if I just turned right instead of left.”’
RISING What happened next, and why is Paris-Roubaix such a punishing race?
AD ‘We had 28-millimetre tyres – big chunky tyres at 40 PSI, which is next to nothing [because of the cobbled sections]. The first two hours you do 100km before you even start the cobbles – that was run at 30mph average. I was trying to get a breakaway, and it wasn't going because of the speed of the race. I was like: “Christ! I'm finding this a little bit difficult, and we’ve still got best part of 200km to go.” The last two times I’ve done Paris-Roubaix, at the end of the Arenberg Forest, I’ve just been like: “No, not today,” and got in the car. It’s easy to pull the pin. But Paris-Roubaix is one where you’ve got to say that you’ve made it to the velodrome. So this time, I said to my Dad: “No, I’m going to finish this year.” And once I got there, I learnt a lot during it, it helped to ride the cobbles in the bunch as opposed to just riding on the cobbles. It kind of got me thinking about next year, like: “Oh maybe if I did this differently, and I approached this a bit differently then maybe I could have a nudge at a result here.”
'It might be a minute, it might be ten, but it's going to be over – and if you pull the pin you’re going to feel disappointed'
RISING Do you think that ‘never say die’ mentality is useful to have outside sport, in general life?
AD ‘Yeah. I think it’s a mentality thing sometimes. My Dad’s had a little bit of a hard time in his business lately, a few things gone catastrophically wrong. I said to him: ‘Dad, it’s like a hard interval on the Turbo, it will be over eventually: it might be a minute, it might be in ten minutes, but it is going to be over, and if you pull the pin before then you’re going to feel disappointed that you didn't finish.” So yeah, this year there’s been much fewer DNFs next to my name than last year, and subsequently there’s been quite a few more results as well, which is really nice.’
RISING You’ve set up the Little Bleeders charity for haemophiliacs – does the example you have shown to other sufferers inspire you to achieve more on the bike?
AD ‘It gives me a bigger source of motivation to train knowing that it does that, than just going out and winning a bike race. If you win a bike race, my old coach used to say: “It lasts until midnight and then it’s done, whether you win or lose,” and it’s the absolute truth. It’s nice winning a race, but it used to mean everything to me then. Now I know that winning a bike race actually does a much bigger thing in the haemophilia community and that’s a bigger source of motivation for me. I remember I had a Mum in Portugal just come up to me and say: “Because of what you do on a bike, I know that my son can lead a much better life than we had anticipated.” That lasts with you forever.’
WHAT’S NEXT? Inspired to make a difference? Then tie your next personal performance goal – whether that’s running a marathon or putting an inch onto your chest – into a charity of your choice, either through a sponsorship or personal donation. You might be surprised at the difference it makes to your levels of motivation, too…