TalkingShop: Matt Stephens

2011 saw two greats from the British scene retire, Rob Hayles (Endura Racing) and Matt Stephens (Sigma Sport) and in this feature we talk to Matt, the manager of the 2012 IG Markets-Sigma Sport team.

Larry Hickmott writes … Matt Stephens is a former British Road Race Champion, was seventh in the World Amateur Road Race Championship in Columbia and showed like a few Brits have in the past, that British riders could race at the highest level in the days before lottery funding and Team Sky etc.

In 2011, Matt suffered an horrific injury in an early season race in France and while he recovered and is walking about and riding the bike, Matt knows he’ll never been the same again. He decided because of that, the time to retire had come.

Retiring from racing means he has one less thing to juggle in a busy life. Matt has a young family as well as a job in the police force and, understandably, is annoyed that he has been forced into retirement rather than doing it on his own terms.

“It’s not been on my own terms because of the injury but the time is right for me to call it quits on my riding and focus now on making sure I can run the team effectively” he told VeloUK.

Matt explained that the focus now is on bringing the young riders through for a year that will clearly be an exciting one with a new sponsor joining Sigma Sport and new riders. “With the level the team is at right now, 2012 is going to be exciting to see what we can do next year. It was never a problem managing and riding, it was always my choice, but it was always quite a fine balancing act. Now, I am more comfortable managing the team for the foreseeable future.”

Having suffered his injury every early season in 2011, Matt was stuck at home during the early season racing and bit-by-bit was able to get fit enough to help manage the team at events culminating in him managing his riders from the team car in the Tour of Britain which he says he thoroughly enjoyed.

It is quite a fresh line up for IG-Sigma Sport in 2012 which Matt says should make it an exciting time to concentrate on managing. One of the key signings has been Dan Craven. “We’re very happy to have such a super talented rider on board and he’s going to add a really good extra dimension to the team as one of the leaders in the squad” Matt explained at the time. “Dan brings a hell of a lot of firepower to the team and will be an ideal rider for Simon (Richardson) to work with at the business end of the Premier Calendar and UCI races along with Steve Lampier and Tom Murray”.

Among the other signings is a former winner of the Archer Grand Prix and the Elite Circuit Series, Simon Gaywood. “I’ve known him for many years and appreciated his talent on the bike and I’m really chuffed we have him on board” says Matt. “We need to be more dynamic in the crits and bringing him in adds a wealth of experience. Linking him up with Minty (Tom Murray) and Steve Lampier in the crits will be quite exciting. Steven Burke (Olympic bronze medallist) as too as we all know how good he is. I’ll be working closely with GB to look after him in the crits and on the road side of things.”

Matt explained that he finds working with riders with untapped potential on the road really interesting and Steven Burke he says, is one such rider. Unleashing that potential on the road will also help him on the track explained Matt.

Of the other new signings, Matt says Andy Griffiths has a big engine and Pete Hawkins from Ireland has been recommended to him by Neil Martin (former pro champion and father to Dan). “He’s a really nice lad with an extremely fast finish and he’s one of a few fast finishers we have brought” says Matt. “Jake (Hayles) too has a quick finish and has been recommended to me by people I have known a long time.”

“I think it will be a stronger team and a much better balanced squad.”

Leading from the front has always been Matt’s style, this from the 2010 CiCLE Classic

A distinguished career
Leaving aside what may happen in 2012 though and looking back at Matt’s career and there are two memories that stick with me — his top 10 at the Worlds and his ride in the Tour of Italy. Both gutsy efforts for different reasons.

Columbia, says Matt, was a big ride for him “I had ridden the Olympics, and the Worlds a few times prior to that” he explained. “I’d ridden the Chambery Worlds (France) as a 19 year old, was top 25 in Stuttgart (1991) and also rode the Barcelona Olympics which was a highlight. I rode the Worlds too in Norway when Ulrich won and for a young guy, I’d had quite a few Worlds under my belt and always ridden pretty solidly in them.”

It was however his ride in Columbia that people still talk about. In Matt’s day, riding full time was a big commitment as there was none of this lottery funding and things like the Dave Rayner Fund, Braveheart and those like it also didn’t exist as far as I’m aware.

I am sure if Matt had started out racing in this era, he’d be riding in a WorldTour team and fulfilling his potential as a cyclist. Sadly for Matt, and so many other talented riders (Tanner/Lovatt et al), the help available to the young talented cyclist today was not available back in the 80’s and 90’s.

“In Columbia, I was approaching my prime and I could climb” says Matt recalling his best result in a World Championship. “The course suited me down to the ground and I think I adapted to the altitude a lot better than many of the European guys.”

“The crucial thing for me was that until I joined the McCartney team, I’d always worked, 1993-19999, and I worked full time as well. Prior to Columbia, I took a month off though and trained specifically for the Worlds. Two weeks at altitude in Colorado and a further two weeks in Columbia and I trained like a pro and it showed when I raced”.

“I knew then that while I could go well while I was working, if I got it right, that if I went full time, I could race at a level that was world class. A deal with US Postal fell through after a change of management so I ended up racing domestically for another three or four years before the McCartney deal came along after I’d won the British champs.”

Was it really over a decade ago! Matt Stephens in the kit for the Linda McCartney team in 2000.

Matt’s story is one very similar to that of Russell Downing. It took him many years of trying to get into a team and even today, a British rider getting a place in a foreign team takes some doing. Despite his success at Sky, Russell again was shunned by a lot of foreign pro teams for 2012 and it won’t be until Britain has multiple ProContinental teams that perhaps this country will be able to provide the pathway for riders such as Russell and Matt to show their potential in Pro races.

Getting a place in a foreign team back in the day was not all about how good your legs were. It was also a case of who you know or how much money you could bring to the team via sponsorship.

Thankfully, Matt eventually got the ‘gig’ at the British Linda McCartney pro team but bad management there cost him a chance of proving himself after the team folded after a year. That year though saw Matt living the dream even if some of that dream turned into a nightmare.

“With the McCartney team, I found myself starting races I’d dreamt of riding” says Matt “and that was something I’ll never forget.”

His nightmare came in the Tour of Italy, his first Grand Tour.

“On day 2 in the Giro, I took a really bad fall on a big mountain. In the Tour you get your flat stages, mountains, transition, flat etc but in the Giro, you can be in the mountains straight away and on day 2 we were hitting first category climbs. We climbed up this pass in the sunshine and descended in the pouring rain and it was like an ice rink. I came off twice, on the same descent with numerous other riders.”

“I ended up in the back of an ambulance and I was a little bit concussed and dizzy. I came too in the ambulance and realised ‘I don’t want to be here, this could be my only crack at a Grand Tour’ and it’s no exaggeration but I fought my out of the ambulance in broken English and Italian and managed to get back on my bike in the pouring rain.”

“By that point, I was last on the road. Sean Yates (director sportif for the Linda McCartney team) was waiting for me and I started off by holding onto the team car as I could hardly pedal as my thighs were locked up and my knees were sore.”

“I had to use my arms to force my thighs into motion and that day, I came in 25 minutes down and outside the time limit. The organisers though let me stay in the race and I lasted another 17 days. I was fighting it every day but it was a great Giro for the team with a stage win and so on.”

“With about four days to go, with the doctor telling me he couldn’t give me any more pain killers, I’d got a chest infection and it felt like I was breathing through a straw. I couldn’t take it anymore and I had to call it quits. It was though a great race; to be riding with Pantini, Cippolini and guys who were my heros back then, I’ll never forget it…”

Passionate …
It takes more than just a good set of legs and lungs to be a great bike rider. So much of racing and winning is in the head and heart and Matt had that passion and determination and so despite not being a great sprinter, he was still able to win big bike races. Losing hurt badly for Matt too as he recalls when talking about the Bronze medal he got in 1997 when Jeremy Hunt won the British RR title.

“I remember crossing the lines in tears feeling I’d completely screwed the race up in the finale. Then the following year, although it probably wasn’t my sort of course, flat to rolling, everything happened right on the day and I managed to win it with one of my strongest ever rides. That was a massive highlight” says Matt.

There were in such a long career on the bike, many more highlights. I remember as a kid in Australia reading about a club in Paris called the ACBB. So many champions came from that club Sean Yates, Robert Miller, Phil Anderson, John Herety and so on. And in 1991 and 92, as a youngster, Matt Stephens too rode for them.

“I had heard of the team and the stars who came through it, the foreign legion so to speak, and Paul Sherwen fixed me up with a place there. The club had been around for many many years and it was pretty prestigious to be one of the best amateur riders coming from Britain going to the best amateur team in France”.

“I had a fantastic but tough time there. I was earning £100 pounds a month so it wasn’t glamorous but when you are 19/20 and all you want to do is ride your bike, it was great. We’d ride the bike and sleep. I learnt another language and met some great teammates with the most well known being Jaan Kirsipuu. He was amazing, even at that time.”

The post McCartney Years …
During the days of the Linda McCartney team, there was a buzz about in the sport just as there is today. Okay, perhaps not as big but then, maybe just as exciting because unlike team Sky, the Linda McCartney team was much more accessible to the fans. At least that is how I remember it ten years on.

So when it went bust, leaving the riders and staff high and dry in Australia at the Tour Down Under, it was a black day for the sport and left a big hole in British cycling. “When the McCartney team went tits up, that was an awful situation and I wasn’t the only one in it” says Matt.
“I was left on the dole and signing on the next week because I had nothing. That was pretty sobering. Then, out of the blue, I thought I’d try and join the police force even though there was no plan to do that.”

“The regret is that I feel I’d had a good first year with the McCartney team and was on the books again for 2001. I may never have been a mega superstar but I still think I could have been a solid pro until I was into my mid to late thirties.”

It was for Matt, a cruel roll of the dice especially as he’d been offered a place in the Cofidis team for 2001 by David Millar. “I had to say, cheers for the offer but I’d agreed to ride for McCartney for 2001 and he was like ‘that’s cool’ and Rob (Hayles) went there. I ended up without a ride though.”

“After the team failed at the hotel where it happened, I rang Dave and he tried to sort something out but when you’re talking February and a team of that stature, places were hard to come by and Inigo Cuesta went instead of me. I had a few offers from some small teams in Belgium but I could have worked in a supermarket for more money.”

“I would love to have had a few more years as pro and ridden the Tour de France and I am envious of the guys doing it now. But, it’s not been that bad though, top 10 in the Worlds, I’ve ridden a Grand Tour, worn the champion’s stripes and ridden the big races in Europe such as Gent Wevelgem, Tour of Romandy and so on. ”

With the first big race of the year about to begin in Australia, the Tour Down Under, perhaps it’s also appropriate to mention that in Matt’s first big pro race, the Tour Down Under in 2000, he finished 8th. He was also 4th in the Tour of Langkawi. Those results had him riding so high in the UCI rankings at that time, he made a copy to keep for prosperity!

British RR Championships 2007, in the mixing fighting for a medal and a crash took him out.

The Sigma Sport Years
His time as a pro though ended with the collapse of the Linda McCartney team. There was no sugar daddy like Sky to bail the team out and cycling wasn’t the in thing like it is now. For six weeks, Matt put the bike away and did his best to get back on his feet. Then, a very energetic person in John Deering who later wrote a book on the Linda McCartney cycling team, contacted Matt and he and Sigma Sport were brought together for the first time.

That was 2001 and here Matt is, still working for the team in 2011 and about to start his second decade with the shops’ name across the jersey of his team. Loyalty like that is rare these days but both have been mutually helpful and with IG on board, who knows how far the team can go. Perhaps Matt will find himself in Europe more and more as a manager this time but for now, they have plans to improve on their performances in 2011 which was a good year with lots of publicity in the Tour of Britain capping off a good year on the road.

Matt meanwhile, says he’ll do his best to half wheel his riders when he can and the end of January Welsh training camp is sure to be an interesting one.

We may not see Matt racing in 2012 but he has certainly have left us with plenty of good memories. His riders face a season where the standard is higher than it has ever been in Britain as Matt explains. “It used to be maybe eight to ten guys who could win a Premier but now it’s a lot more broader. Even guys on the smaller teams where they are better organised and look good, ride to a very high standard which makes the racing more open and a lot tougher.”

Matt knows what it’s like to win in Britain and he’s won some classic races that are no longer with us. The Manx International is one he says that was a great event and the Tour of the Peak is another. He rode the Milk race and in 1993, Matt was 10th in the race won by Chris Lillywhite. Brian Smith (Endura Racing manager now) was 5th and Nico Mattan 7th.

It was a big deal for a 20 year old Matt says to be racing that event, the distances, the backing up every day but it was a fantastic race. It, like the Tour of Italy, the World Championships, the Olympics and so on, are now just fine memories for Matt as a rider.

A new career as a team manager beckons and no doubt Matt will be just as determined to see his riders succeed just as he has, teeth clenched and a depth of determination on show for all to see. That was Matt’s trade mark and it is something he is sure to want to see in his riders in 2012. They have a lot to live up to but with Matt at the helm, I’m sure the IG-Sigma Sport team will be fighting tooth and nail throughout the season to make their master proud.

I certainly hope they do because that is what Matt and the sponsors deserve. Good luck to Matt and his team in 2012.

Interviews from VeloUK

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