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Watch: How one Dromore family produced three Commonwealth Games cyclists as Mark Downey prepares to follow familiar path

Video by Ben Tucker, words by Gareth Hanna

Bumping our way up a tiny country lane outside Dromore, County Down, we weren't entirely convinced we'd got the right address.

We were heading to the home of one of Irish cycling's legendary families, following the aura of the Downey dynasty that is about to get even stronger as 21-year-old Mark prepares to race in his first ever Commonwealth Games.

Not that the country road showed any signs of the athletic prowess it protects.

"It's all a bit crazy," concedes Team NI's top cycling hope. We couldn't disagree. So how has it all taken place?

Few of the 88 athletes preparing to represent Northern Ireland in the Gold Coast will have such a history of success powering their path.

On his own steam, Mark has already won three World Cup gold medals. But when you're a Downey, that still doesn't blow away the competition from under your own roof.

That's because older brother Sean bagged a bronze Commonwealth Games medal back in 2010 and dad Séamus is an Olympian from 1984.

The elder of the three now runs a cycle shop based out that same bumpy road on the family farm where all three were born. It's a charming spot but far from the glimmering lights that await Mark's arrival Down Under.

"It's a great place," smiled Séamus. "The shop has brought us into close connection with the cycling world. After I stopped racing, it kept me in touch with it all."

Watch: How one Dromore farming family produced three Commonwealth Games cyclists as Mark Downey prepares to follow a...

Posted by Belfast Telegraph Sport on Monday, January 8, 2018

It's packed to the roof with bicycle frames old and new but interspersed between the spokes, a few pictures reveal the levels that these three men have reached.

But it's the typical farmyard outside the doors that is perhaps the true reason that lies behind the cycling success.

"My father had a dairy farm here and I took up cycling to get away from it," laughed Séamus, looking at an atmosphere-filled portrait of his father propped against the far wall.

"I always had an interest in bikes, from a mechanical point of view. We had to walk to school and I got a bicycle from a dump and got bits and pieces to finish it myself. I went from that to cycling with my cousins and then we fell in with Banbridge Cycling Club and that was the start of it all."

Schoolboy racing for Northern Ireland followed just a couple of years on before two Commonwealth Games appearances and that unforgetable trip to the Los Angeles Olympic Games - all while balancing a job as a teacher.

He still has his green Team Ireland jacket, which Mark carries into the shed in his typically low-key manner, along with a weighty-looking plastic bag. What is it hiding? Only the family's collection of top level medals.

"All that started growing up around the bike shed here," reflected Sean, referencing the packed plastic bag. That, of course, includes Sean's own career. His route to the podium in Delhi all began because of an unforced intrique into his dad's business.

"Dad was always building bikes, selling bikes," explained Sean. "One day I was watching the Tour de France in the Lance Armstrong days and I asked dad if I could try a race. He never forced us to do  anything, we made all the decisions ourselves."

The trio followed a similar route to the top echalons of world cycling. All three were trained and nurtured by Banbridge Cycling Club.

"It's just a club with a big family tradition and over 100 years experience," said Sean.

"I didn't wake up and I was automatically great at bike riding, There were so many things I had to learn. You get into the club, mixing with a lot of people and you get feedback on all the things you need to know."

Sean's professional career is now at an end but he says he glad to be back and settled again in Dromore. Slumped back into his chair, it's hard to disbelieve him. Not that his role in Team Downey is over. Rather, he's keen to use his own experiences to aid his younger brother's quest for Games glory.

"It's really good to encourage and motivate each other," he said. "There were days I was getting it tight, he'd come in and pick me up and now it's the other way round. There's a good relationship there."

So, from a man who knows, what exactly can Mark and the other 87 Northern Ireland athletes expect at April's Commonwealth Games?

"The Games and the opening ceremony are great but you can't get sucked into that," said Sean; his first piece of pre-Games advice. "You're going there to do a job and to compete. You're there for a long period of time and you have to be careful. The food court is dangerous," he laughed.

With an attitude to his sport that befits a world number one, it's hard to imagine Mark will allow himself to be side-tracked in Australia.

Even Séamus and Sean admit that Mark is the most talented of the trio, although Sean insists he might be able to out-fox his younger brother with some 'Downey craft'. That's an exciting prospect given the achievements of his predecessors and the fact that Mark has already reached the top of his specialist Points race world-rankings.

"That's a bit crazy," he smiled. "To say a wee man sitting in a cycle shed in the back ass of nowhere is a world number one is a bit mad. My career moved very quickly from being a junior to senior and into the top scene. I think that was a reflection of all the work I had done round here at a young age.

"On my first bike, the two wheels were punctured and I had to keep stopping to blow them up again. I grew up watching Sean competing with the likes of Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins and thinking that's what I want to do."

Much like his brother and father before him, Mark's racing pedigree didn't take long to shine through. So when exactly did he realise he could follow in their footsteps to world level competition?

"The first time I got that feeling on the track was when I won a European medal in the points race as a second year junior," he said. "Then I won the Irish TT Championships two weeks later. I hadn't been on my TT bike all year so I thought if I could beat all the guys in Ireland with two weeks training, I could maybe compete with the best in the world with more work."

He's already beaten the world's best three times before to earn his trio of World Cup golds, the magnitude of which he said only sank in when he saw his granny in tears in the house across the yard. Now he wants to go one step further and earn top spot at the World Championships in February and the Commonwealths in April. But even those victories aren't the real driving force behind the latest Downey talent.

"I always said I wanted to be an Olympic medalist," he confessed. "It's ambitious but we're sports people. We have to be.

"If you stand up there, everybody remembers your name. That's what's driving my career. I'd love an Olympic medal and I'd love to ride into Paris in a Tour de France as well. To have the Downey dynasty standing there at the finish line would be special."

Positives performances Down Under, it's fair to say, would be a significant bonus along the way - particularly if he was able to top his brother's bronze.

"It's a competitive household and Sean has the medal so I've that in mind," he smiled. "It's an ongoing joke between the two of us. It's competitive but that's the way it has to be. It will be pretty special to go there. I'll know all of my opponents so hopefully my performance on the day can be good enough."

It's no surprise that Sean says he would be the first to congratulate his younger brother if Mark does manage to beat the bronze - the atmosphere around this county lane is very much 'Team Downey'.

"A medal would be a proud moment for the whole family," said Sean.

"He can go there knowing he will be able to compete. I would be very confident that Mark can perform really well. I'm not saying he will win a medal but I know he can perform to the best of his ability and as long as he's happy with the performances he gives, that's all you can ask for."

As we begin to pack up the camera and Séamus tells me he's got the perfect bicycle for a beginner like myself, I wonder just how it has happened that one farming family has produced three of Northern Ireland's greatest ever cyclists. Séamus mulls over the question, as if he's never really thought about it.

"There must be some type of genetic thing there, I don't know," he says. "It's discipline and it's work. The work ethic's there. If you work hard, you'll get there in anything in life. It's a good question. Thank God it has happened," he smiles with the face of a proud father.

For Sean, it's all down to one word.

"Passion," he says more immediately, with a convincing stare. "It's in the DNA. We're all good bike riders and have the interest. Encouragement and motivation - I don't really know how it happened but it's pretty good."

Whether there's something in the genes or something in the water down Dromore way, it's an incredible story of talent mixed with graft. And with Mark looking ahead to a landmark 2018, there are plenty more chapters still to be written down the bumpy Dromore lane.

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