The career of one Dromore cyclist really is going through the gears.
Mark Downey came a thrilling 13th in last week’s An Post Rás, and now he’s hoping that will provide the springboard to even greater success.
Ireland’s premier cycling race was won by Clemens Fankhauser but his place atop the podium is one that Downey is coveting.
“The guy that won it is 33 so there is a big age gap there,” said the 19 year-old.
“Our leading Irish racer Eddie Dunbar came fourth. If I look at the gap between me and him last year, I think I have made a big improvement so if I can keep that going and come back next year then hopefully I could achieve more.
“It would be great to even look at a stage win.
“This year, I didn’t want to add any pressure onto myself. It was my first time in the race but now that I’ve got this to build on, let’s see where I can get to.”
Last week was the first time Mark has raced in the An Post Rás, although it’s a race he was very familiar with, having watched his dad Seamus and brother Sean both take part.
“There were thousands there watching,” Downey beamed, shortly after peddling over the line in Skerries on Sunday.
“Coming up to the finish line, they were standing a few rows deep and I was definitely feeling the goosebumps.
“I tried to get up to the sprint but I nearly got put into the kerb so that was the end of that.
“It was great just to be there. I’ve been there to cheer Sean on a few times so it was brilliant to be on the other side of the barriers.”
Mark finished inside the top 20 in all of the final six days and he says that strong finish was no coincidence: “I didn’t know how I was going to cope with an eight day race.
“The longest I had done before was five days and that was about three years ago. I’m a lot stronger now.
“I went into the race off the back of a break in training so I was well rested. It meant that in the opening few days, I wasn’t as quick because my legs weren’t opened up but then as time went on and other guys were tiring, I kept getting stronger and stronger.
“That was all part of the plan. You never go into a race like that and show all your cards at the start.
“The Queen stage on Saturday was really tough,” Downey contined. “We had a 7km climb up a hill and then we had to go another 50k to the finish line.
“We were riding at 30 miles per hour for the last few kilometres too so it was very full-on.
“It was just class to be involved and to race with all of those guys. It was nice to get to race amongst the pros and our racing in France is considered amateur, even though it is basically a professional standard.
“It was great for all of the family to come down and see me racing because they don’t normally get to do that.
“Dad and Sean knew exactly what I was experiencing during those tough miles with the tongue hanging out.”
Downey was, of course, racing for the Irish national team alongside fellow Banbridge CC cyclist Matthew Teggart, who came in an impressive 35th.
“The Irish jersey is definitely well respected, maybe too well respected. If you’re in an Irish jersey, people look at you and go ‘let’s catch that young guy.’
“We had four young guys and one guy leading us so we were delighted to achieve what we did.
“Matty got on really well. We raced really well. He got up in a couple of breaks and did a great job in a support role for Eddie and myself. He didn’t get the results on the board but he was doing a lot and racing really well.”
It’s no wonder Downey has progressed. He is in the middle of his first year racing full-time for French team Dynamo Cover.
And he’s hoping his impressive form in the Rás will help him to track down his first win on the continent.
“I want to go back and really take the bull by the horns.”