Interview: Matt Stephens

Larry Hickmott talks to Matt Stephens, rider/manager for the Sigma Sport cycling team about ‘that’ crash which has kept him out of the racing since March and how he and the Sigma team are faring in April.

Matt’s Sigma team have lost a valuable rider for 2011 after his crash in France.

Most riders will experience injuries during their career and those that don’t are either very lucky or very very good at avoiding trouble. One rider who has had his fare share of crashes is a former British Road Race champion (1998) and  professional rider in Europe, Matt Stephens.

In 1995, Matt was 7th in the World Amateur Road Race Championship which just goes to show what a talented rider he is and at the wrong side of 40, Matt’s still riding strong from the front of British races as well as in Europe.

Matt started 2011 well, got plenty of miles in during a training camp and felt he was going well until he came down heavily in Paris- Troyes. Now, there is never a good time to crash, especially as heavily as Matt did, but when it comes at the start of the season and the legs are feeling strong, then the salt really is being rubbed into the wounds to make them sting all the more.

Almost a month on, Matt recalled the crashed and explained that it was one of those freak ones. Picture the scene of a big 150 plus rider peloton chasing a lone leader 30 seconds up the road, descending a one in twelve hill along a straight road at 65kph or more.

Suddenly, on a new section of tarmac which was damp from on/off rain, riders for no reason, started to slap off and in seconds, fifty or more hit the deck including most of the Sigma team with Russell Hampton, Steve Lampier, Tom Murray and Kit Gilham joining their esteemed leader on the tarmac.

In Matt’s case, he saw the rider in front go down and knew he wasn’t going to escape so steered the bike as best he could towards the grass. The next thing he knew, he’d hit the only steel sign in the area and shattered his shin from the knee down.

“Hardly a sign or house for miles and I happen to hit the only one” he said before adding  “I was in a hell of a lot of pain for a long period of time after that“.

Unsurprisingly, with so many riders affected, the race ground to a halt as the team cars stopped to attend to the riders. Those who couldn’t go on in the race, and there were plenty of them, had to wait for ages to get transported to a hospital and Matt recalls it was over an hour before he and 25 to 30 others, ended up in hospital.

Matt pounds across the packed earth during the CiCLE race in 2010.

Most of the injured were suffering from road rash but quite bad road rash due to the speed of the crash and there were a few collarbones broken that day as well. Matt though got the unwanted prize of the worst injuries. It was ironic, says Matt, because the race was one of the first big ones he did well at when he was an amateur (1990/1991) with the famous ACBB club that launched a multitude of pro careers.

“I never expected to be riding it at 41 but I was in pretty good shape so was bitterly disappointed.” Spoken like a true bike rider!

So, today, Matt is at home with a leg in a lot of plaster, hinged for movement, covering a shin with multiple fractures at the top of the tibia where the shin turns into the cup for the knee as well as other fractures to the shin.

His season unsurprisingly, is over before it really got going but Matt is hoping to get back on a bike, a stationary one, at the end of May or early June. The cast will come off at the end of April for scans to be done and he’s hoping that the bone will have heeled enough by the end of April for the leg to be load bearing.

With so much damage to bone and muscle though, he knows he’s in for a long period of physio. Matt then explained that losing a season is so disappointing after putting in so much work to be fit. That is no easy task for Matt who works full time as a police officer, has a family, manages the Sigma team and also has to fit in training around that.

Juggling all that he says is challenging but that he still enjoys it. Matt is one of the sport’s die hards who have cycling in their blood. “The scene is so vibrant and we have such a good bunch of lads, the whole thing is exciting on a domestic level. It hasn’t been like this since the 80s. So it is something I don’t want to miss.”

“Ideally, part of me would like to do this full time but we’re not in a position to do that at the minute so I am enjoying doing it at the UCI level we’re at. I fit it all in because I want to fit it in and enjoy doing it.”

The reason Matt was in France with his Sigma team was because, as he explains, with no early season Premier Calendar races, the team needed some long races at a high level to help with the physical conditioning of the riders as well as give the younger riders some experience.

“The domestic scene still remains the priority but it’s good to go over there to give the younger guys in the team some experience and build up your condition. The domestic Premier events are really competitive races and the most  challenging for a while. To win one, you really have to be in good shape.”

The Premier Calendar events in the 21st century are more team orientated Matt explained. “At the end of the 90s, there were a few smaller teams but mostly individuals or two man teams but now you have to be part of a reasonably sized team.”

CiCLE Classic 2010 and Matt Stephens signs on. This year Matt will be waiting at home for news …

Matt admits though as high a level as the Premier Calendar events are, when you go abroad, the level in a UCI 1.2 is a step up and a 1.1 an even bigger step. “If you want to be a pro, you have to mix it at that level first before you start thinking about the level above. It is important to ride at that level to see what its like”.

That said, Matt emphasised they don’t just send anyone from the team to these races and he is quite selective about the riders that go to the European UCI races. He is aware though his team of riders is quite experienced and even the youngest rider, Tom Copeland, has several years riding in Europe.

The team can also call on the experience of Super Sid, that’s Sid Barras, who’s claim to fame among many is to have beaten the great Eddy Merckx at London’s now long lost circuit, Eastway. With the likes of Sid and Matt, the team is able to guide riders though the European races, giving them advice on how to ride them.

And the team don’t have huge expectations for the riders in such races. Matt  admits he’s happy if they go over there, mix it with the best in the race and show themselves. Not only will the riders get great condition, the experience will give them the confidence to come back and tackle the Premiers in a really positive way.

With the first Premier Calendar race in two weeks, all the teams are busy getting that experience and conditioning work in and Sigma Sport Specialized is no different. This weekend, Sigma Sport, like other British Teams, have a split programme of races.

The team for the Tesco Cicle Classic is;

Wouter Sybrandy
Steve Lampier
Steve Adams
Phill Sykes
Dan Duguid
Russell Hampton (TBC)

They also have a team in Brittany doing the Tour de Finistere 1.1 and Tro Bro Leon 1.1. The riders doing those races are:

Simon Richardson
Tom Murray
Tom Last
Tom Copeland
Kit Gilham
James Williamson

Finally, Matt isn’t sure when he’ll be at a race but admits he does miss them. Not just the racing but his lads in the team and all the friends he has made over the years in the other teams. He would like to be a spectator at the Lincoln GP in early May so lets hope that Matt Stephens is well enough to get to that race and thanks to him for talking to VeloUK.

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