Rock Star – James Downing

This month’s RockStar is James Downing. He’s an elite mountain bike racer specialising in cross country mountain bike races that cover up to 100km.  With over 25 years in the sport, he still cycles over 20,000kms and completes upwards of 40 races per year.  

What’s your favourite colour RockTape and why?

This is a really tricky question!  I am partial to the Muertape with the crazy skulls on it and I use the lime green a fair bit because it sort of ties in with the green of my major sponsor Cannondale.  I have a pretty standard taping regime that I do on training rides and races that suits my needs when on the bike.  This tends to help with the sustained power outputs as well as preventing injury for me.

Your main focus is on the long distance mountain bike races that are held across the nation.  Can you describe what a typical race involves and how long it takes?

Each year I race about 10-20 XCM races.  The XC refers to Cross Country and the M stands for marathon, which essentially means long distance!  So these are anywhere from 75 to 110km in length and would tend to take between 3 and 5 hours in general.  Depending on what part of the country I am racing in, there can be between 800 and 3000 metres of climbing involved as well.

The way that these races unfold is into 3 parts.  The first hour, the last hour and the middle.  Well, that is how I segment them up anyway! (laughs)  The first hour is flat out and everyone is pretty much going at a really intense pace in order to sort the initial selection of riders.  The last hour is where you pick your mark and pretty much empty the tank.  You really want to get to the finish line with nothing left.  The middle section is about finding that happy medium where you can hold a very solid pace where you go fast but still have something left for the last hour.

To quantify things for those that like numbers I’ll strip down the last race that I did in Alice Springs on the 15th of April.

  • 80km
  • 3 hours 45 minutes – this would be on the short side of things
  • 3 km/hr average speed
  • 800m of climbing – ie, pretty flat
  • 2907 calories burnt – about 10 cheeseburgers worth in the old money
  • Average Heart Rate of 169 beats per minute
  • Maximum Heart Rate of 189 beats per minute – I hit that in the last 3 minutes trying to hold off a competitor

Needless to say, this freaking hurts! (laughs)  But like any sport, you prepare for it and know what to expect.

And you’ve also competed in a huge variety of other mountain bike races.  Talk us through the evolution of your sporting career and how you arrived at a focus on the long distance events.

Far out…there are a LOT of different 2 wheel activities that I have done over the years that’s for sure!  So in 1988 I went and stayed with a mate on his farm and he had a mountain bike.  I took it for a spin and was hooked immediately.  The next year I started racing cross country mountain biking and did my first ever National Championships.  Back then they had an uphill race.  When you finished that sucker, they turned you around and had the downhill race.  The next day you did the 2 hour cross country race.  Back then this was all done on the same bike.

As for evolution, well you tend to try everything in your chosen sport to see what you like and what you are also good at.  Listing them all off the top of my head goes a little something like this…oh, and these aren’t in any particular order either as sometimes there is a bit of crossover…cross country Olympic (90 minute), uphill, downhill, observed trials, dual slalom, 4 cross, BMX, Cross country short track (20 minute), cross country marathon, 24 hour, 3 hour, Cyclocross, road racing, criterium racing…as I think about it, probably the only cycling discipline that I haven’t done is track racing!

In about 2009 I decided that Cross Country Marathon looked like it offered up a fair bit of what I actually liked to do on the bike which was to just get out and explore and not do the same trail twice!  The best rides I would do were where I would roll out the door and put together a massive 4 to 5 hour loop trying to rack up an epic ride where you pieced together the best bits.  I’ll still race short track, XCO and road each year as well, but the focus is on the longer events.

What different types of training do you get up to in the lead up to a race?  How many hours are you spending on your bike or in the gym?

Training is always meant to set you up so that it is as easy as it can be on race day.  For any activity you are pretty much taking the end goal, which is the race, and deconstructing it so that you match up what you need to do in training.  So for me, I need to ride long rides, I need to have some pretty high level intensity, and I need to ensure that the whole body can handle getting worked over for about 4 to 5 hours.

I do a couple of really tough bunch rides during the week to get the high intensity thing sorted.  Living in Canberra this is pretty easy as there are a lot of pro road and mountainbike riders and there are always good strong riders in the bunch to work with.  I also spend a day per week on a hill doing strength work.  This involves doing something like 6 times up the mountain in a hard gear, which essentially is like doing weightlifting on the bike.  It is boring as but highly effective! (laughs)  Usually Saturday is spent doing a long ride of about 5 and a half hours.  This is usually on the road bike, but sometimes I will do it on the mountain bike.  It just depends on the time of year, the weather and the mood I am in!

All up it will be between 15 and 30 hours a week ranging from between 300 and 900km per week depending on the time of the year and what I am trying to achieve with respect to preparation.

Mentally, how do you prepare for a race which you know is going to be long and painful?

I think that deep down inside I know that each and every race is going to be painful!  There are no easy races that’s for sure!  I am pretty well conditioned to be able to put myself through a fair bit of pain through years of experience in the fine art of receiving pain and also dishing it out! (laughs)

During the race – when everything hurts – how do you push yourself to keep going?

Good question!!  For me there are certain points in the race where the pain hits you differently.  First hour pain is very intense on the body.  Mentally, at this point you ae very motivated and pushing through it is not difficult as you are trying to hold the wheel in front of you, or drop those behind you.  At about the 2 hour mark when you have run your stored glycogen levels down and you are not even half way to the end, you have got to call on the jedi mind games to push through that next hour or so! (laughs)  There are a lot of deals made with yourself at this stage of the race.  The last hour is a bit easier mentally as well as you just want to get to the finish as quickly as possible so that the pain can stop and you can eat the stuff based on the deals that you have made with yourself! (laughs)

I have to ask, does your butt get sore riding for so many hours?  How should beginner riders go about getting over the very real discomfit?

(Bursts into laughter) That is too funny!  I think that just about every other part of my body apart from my butt hurts after hours on the bike!  It must be conditioned or something after all these years I reckon!  Seriously though, I have some awesome equipment at my disposal including Fizik saddles, Spin Cycle Clothing and Premax antifriction cream that make the discomfort essentially non-existent.

If you are getting into cycling and are worried about this sort of thing, get yourself a good pair of cycling shorts with the padding in them as this will make a world of difference.  Also, have a look at all of the various saddle shapes that exist.  There will be one out there that will suit your butt very nicely (laughs).  The antifriction cream also allows things to be all good at one of the most delicate contact points that you will have with your bike.

You’ve had extreme longevity in your sport – you started in 1989!  If you could look back on yourself as a younger athlete, what advice would you give to yourself?

Yeah, that has been a fairly long time that’s for sure.  But as they say in the big game, time flies when you’re having fun!  That is pretty much it for anything I think.  If you are not enjoying it, then you really need to step back and question why you are doing it.

One thing that I do now is get out and see other stuff when I am at a race.  I am really fortunate to travel a lot around Australia for my racing and there is a hell of a lot to see out there beyond the confines of the 4 walls of the motel you are staying in!  I’ll generally catch up with friends and family for dinner or even a coffee and just keep the eyes open to different opportunities.  I find that this also helps me to not get so inwardly focused on the race that hasn’t even started yet.

And how have you maintained that drive to succeed, and your love of the sport, over such a long time span?  How do you go about continually reinventing yourself as an athlete?

Ever since I started racing back when I was 16 I have been driven intrinsically to try and post the best results that I can.  I’ve looked into the reasons why and there might be some Dr Phil moments where I go “oh yeah, that thing that happened is what drives me” but I have always tried to do the best at everything that I do whether it is work, sport or whatever else.

The passion for two wheels I think comes from that time when I was 8 years old and got my first bike.  It was, for me, a freedom machine.  It is your first mechanism for seeing the world, which at that stage might have just been a 5km radius around your house.  Even today, that still holds true.  You can explore, see things, experience things and easily destress when you are on the bike.  It makes you feel like you are a million miles away and 16 again.

Good question about reinventing myself as an athlete…man, I need to think about that for a second.  Okay, there are bits that I have kept real and true over time that probably won’t change.  I can see this in my photos and knowledge of myself since day one.  I think with the years come the maturity and wisdom that allows you to know what to do in order to create your own brand that you are ultimately happy with.  What I have realised is that you try things in the different stages of your life as you try to find yourself and what sort of person you are trying to be.  As you get more secure with who you are the more real the version of you as a person becomes.  (shrugs shoulders)  The parallel universe of your athlete life follows that same progression as the human being life as they are obviously closely linked.

Who has been an inspiration for you, and why?  Who are you hoping to inspire through your sporting journey?

A lot of the inspiration for me came in my formative years as a junior.  There were the international superstars of the sport such as John Tomac that you wanted to emulate, but then there were also local guns such as Pete Smith and Ben Monroe that were winning national titles that you wanted to be like for different reasons as well.  I was really fortunate to be able to ride with these guys every week both in training and racing every week and learned so much from an early stage.  It was seriously awesome.

Taking a lead from Tiger Woods it is always a good idea to check everyone out and take a small percentage of the best bits that they have to offer. This in turn shapes the ultimate version of yourself that you want to be.

As for inspiration….well, if I can get someone to get on their bike and feel like it took them to some place that made them happy then that is a good thing I reckon.

Besides riding, can you share a little about what else you get up to in your life?

In my day job I work as a data analyst, I like classic rock n roll, I enjoy coffee and I make a pretty kickass espresso martini if I do say so myself! (laughs)  And I enjoy long walks on the beach.  Okay that last bit isn’t overly true as anyone who knows me know that I am not a fan of long walk (laughs)

Who is mountain bike riding perfect for?  And how do you recommend people get started and try it out?

It is something that anyone can do.  I would highly recommend just getting out there and trying an easy trail.  There are heaps of groups out there that can provide support for anyone no matter what level that they are at.  Don’t forget that everyone was a beginner at some stage!

What’s coming up next for you?  Any races or travel?

Yeah, there is always something coming up!  I have 3 races over the next few weekends in Canberra and Sydney that will keep me busy.  Later in the year I’ve got more races in Brisbane, Alice Springs, Tathra, Canberra and Bowral so a fair bit on travel still on the cards coming up.  There are always races on somewhere!

Where can people learn more about your journey online?

Ah yes…I do partake in the social media thing.  It is a non-negotiable these days if you are representing different brands as an athlete.

I am on Facebook – James Downing – I’ll be the one on a bike in their profile pic!

Instagram – @james_downing26

Twitter – @jdowning26

Instagram is where I will post the most of my content.  The photo is king in every sense of the word!