In the summer of 2008, BKW had the opportunity to sit down with the 2004 Australian Road Racing Champion and cobbles fanatic, Matthew “Matty” Wilson, to talk about his career and his love for the Spring Classics. Matty has raced for a wide range of teams, including Mercury-Viatel, Francaise des Jeux, Unibet, and the U.S. Domestic team Team Type 1. Matty has seen his share of high profile victories over the course of his career, but his biggest win to-date may be his most recent offer from the boys in argyle to return to the cobbles after a two-year stint racing in the U.S. Matty’s specific role will be to support the Garmin-Transitions Classics squad.
During our interview with Matty, his passion for the Spring Classics was as obvious as his desire to return to a European race schedule. Matty’s descriptions of life as a Classics racer were deep and insightful, serving up an even greater appreciation for life in Belgium during Springtime and what it means to be an opportunist.
BKW: You have raced both Grand Tours (Tour, Giro) and the Spring Classics. Which do you prefer?
MW: The Classics, for sure. The Belgian Spring Classics have always been fascinating to me, since I was a little kid. If I were to make a career for me in the U.S., the Spring Classics are the thing I would miss most.
BKW: What was a typical spring campaign like for you?
MW: It started with Dwars door Vlaanderen, a sort of kick-off race. I will head to Belgium and spend 6-8 weeks riding the roads. In Belgium, the fans are different. There cycling is the hugest sport; it’s in the papers and on the television and the fans want to come up and talk with you. It’s a great feeling being a cyclist during that time of year.
MW: For me, it’s tough…the change in the time zones, the change in temperature, and always within two weeks of arriving, I get sick. I know it will happen, it is just a matter of time. I get sick once, then right before the Classics again; it’s a running thing of sickness for me during that time of year. I guess it’s the cold weather, something in the air. A lot of guys have trouble like that.
BKW: What are your favorite Classics?
MW: Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. I think Flanders is my favorite, but Paris-Roubaix is a very close second.
BKW: Which suits you better?
MW: Probably, Flanders.
BKW: What factors make it better for you?
MW: I like the atmosphere and the little climbs. For me, it’s more of an opportunist ride, one where I can ride in a good position and get over the toughest parts. You don’t necessarily have to be the strongest guy. Roubaix is similar, but you need a lot of horse power to get over the cobbled sections, which if you’re not naturally born with it, then your really at a disadvantage.
BKW: You always hear people talk about the physique and metal toughness that are key for a Roubaix winner. Everyone always says, “He’s got the build,” but few ever say what it is. What does the Roubaix build look like?
MW: People say you need to be a big guy to ride the pave, but that’s not necessarily true. I think you need to be able to put out the horse power for 5-6 minutes over pave. Small guys can do it, but typically that’s better-suited to a big, heavy rider—more like a Cancellara, Boonen, Museeuw, Backstedt—big guys with a lot of horse power on the flats.
BKW: Do you prefer hot and sunny conditions, like the most recent conditions of Paris Roubaix, or the nasty, 1994-like conditions?
MW: It’s love-hate. It’s better for me if the conditions are nasty, you lose half the field right away because they don’t like it, then another half to crashes, which can be an advantage. As an opportunist, the only chance I have is if others fall off…if you sit back a bit and take a better line, you can survive. But you never wake up hoping it’s raining. Some guys might, but I’m hoping it’s going to be nice weather. You don’t want to crash, but everyone is in the same position.
BKW: When you line up for a race and there are clear favorites, what is your strategy and what are you looking for? Do you mark those riders who are favorites? How does the race play out and how do you identify when a move will stick?
MW: You need to look at your team. If you’re in a strong team with 1 or 2 guys who can stay with the favorites when the hammer goes down, then those guys are the guys to protect and they will mark the good guys. Once it goes full-gas, there are only 8-10 guys who can go that speed. But from an opportunist point of view, it does not make sense to mark Tom Boonen or Ballan because when they go, I can’t go with them. But as an opportunist, it is key to get into an early move or a break and try to get away from them.
BKW: Over your years in cycling, have you looked up to anyone as a role model or had any mentors?
MW: While at Française des Jeux I rode with Frédéric Guesdon and Christophe Mengin, two french riders who are specialists in those types of races. Guesdon won Roubaix in ’97; but the pair of them have always been in the Top 20. They are so crafty and I learned a lot from them. When I was younger, Johan Museuew was the rider everyone wanted to be and the rider you tried to emulate. But it’s not good trying to emulate riders if you don’t have that ability because you can’t win the race in the same way, you have find your own way to win. Jacky Durand was a rider who never had any special abilities, but he knew what he could do and he took his chances and when I see a guy like that win, I say if he can do it so can I. He’s a smart rider and he takes his chances on the long breakaways. I learned from him how to ride a breakaway, he would attack in the beginning and get a gap then sit up and let the teams work at the front to bring him back. The teams would take 2-3 minutes out of his lead and then let off because they were bringing him back too fast. He would literally play with them, staying in reserve until the final kilometers and letting the teams think they had him under control. Then, when he takes off, the teams realize they have made a mistake and it’s too late.
BKW: In the prep before the race, do you follow any special routines?
MW: Every rider has routines. Cyclists are very habitual; you’re always in different environments and different hotels so you try to create a system where you do the sames things every day, even though you’re in a different place. It’s nothing scientific; it’s more habit and head games.
MW: I am addicted to eye masks and ear plugs. People are always snoring and there are so many different noises in hotel rooms, so I use them so the environment is always the same.
BKW: What special gear do you use when the conditions are cold and wet?
MW: I use woolen socks and rubber shoe covers. I have a great pair of Nalini covers from years ago and I’ve worn them in all the Classics because they keep my feet warm and dry. You get tricks from other riders. You see someone do something and you say that’s a great idea, and you begin to use it. I remember Frank Vandenbroucke used to use knee warmers and he’d cut them off shorter because your knees were not cold, but your quads were, so he’d have an extra layer over the quads.
The time we spent with Matty flew by and during our discussion, he was putting away bowl after of bowl of pasta in prep for the day’s race. Aside from Matty’s victories and love for the Classics, he is also a Hodgkins Disease survivor. Following his diagnosis and recovery, Matty’s career took off. Matty was a joy to speak with and, although only a portion of the interview is presented here, his passion for the Spring Classics and cycling was emphatic.
A special thank you goes out to D.R. for his assistance in lining up this interview and for use of his space to make it happen.