Michael Matthews: Behind the bling
Michael Matthews is sitting in his apartment in Monaco. It’s late and he has just finished packing. Tomorrow morning he flies out to his first race of the season. His wife, Katarina (Kat) walks into the room and sits down next to him. Kat, who is from Slovakia, is tall, dark haired and attractive. She is distracted by a movement on the couch. GiGi, their longhaired dachshund, lays across them, uninterested in anything other than a belly rub.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I was younger… I guess,” Matthews says. We are talking over Skype. It’s early morning in Australia and I have a coffee in my hand. Kat waves at the camera, before grabbing her laptop to do some work. She is a marketer, and does ad hoc work for her father’s company, Paul Lange Oslany, Slovakia’s Shimano distributor. Matthews looks down into his lap. We’ve just started talking about his life before he started cycling. I can see him taking himself back there, to the southern suburbs of Canberra, Australia’s capital city, to a time when he didn’t even know what ‘road cycling’ was.
“When I was younger I was one of the bad kids,” Matthews says, “I was hanging around with the wrong crowd.” He looks up, pauses for a second. “I was heading down a bad road. I had no idea what I really wanted to do in life,” he says. “It’s crazy to think that I’ve ended up here.”
Matthews’ life changed forever one ordinary day when, as a schoolboy, he was walking down the hallway of his high school, Melrose High. One of his sports teachers, Des Proctor, pulled him aside after class one afternoon.
“Have you seen the State Academy of Sport has a talent identification program?” Des said. “What’s that?” Matthews replied. “The Academy runs a series of tests on young athletes across Australia, to work out if they have potential in any given sport. There’s a spot available. Testing’s next week,” he said. “You should do it.” Matthews remembered laughing.
Sure, he’d enjoyed sport in general at school and was pretty good at whatever he did, but that was ‘just sport’. What good could ever come from that? “Anyway, here are the details,” Proctor said, handing Matthews the paperwork. “You have to have a go, trust me, it’ll be worth it!” Matthews recalled staring at the papers — its big black bold letters challenging him: ‘ACTAS Talent Identification Program’. He read it over and over again.
I guess I can just give it a go, Matthews thought, none of my friends need know. He folded the pieces of paper and slipped them into his back pocket.
It’s strange, now, to imagine the world of professional cycling without Matthews. A stage winner in all three Grand Tours, he’s made a name for himself. It’s as though he was born to be a great cyclist. Yet every moment of his career, the wins, the losses, the triumphs, and struggles, could so easily never have happened. A few altered interactions and he may never have gotten onto a road bike. It’s a reality Matthews does not take lightly, even to this day. “If Des Proctor hadn’t sent me off to try out for the TID [Talent Identification] Program, I don’t know where my life would have taken me,” Matthews says. He pats GiGi, whose head nudges him. The sounds of expensive cars driving along the streets of Monaco drift up into his apartment.
“I could have ended up in jail by now. Des kept pushing me into all these different sports, you know, to try and give me that focus you need, and maybe get me away from the trouble I was heading for. I am so grateful for that,” he says.
Matthews’ cycling career began as a journey of discovery. Initially it was a foreign, complex and strange beast to him. Suddenly he was meant to shave his legs? Wear tight clothes? And what was this ‘peloton’ everyone kept talking about?
It was by way of this pure sense of naivety about the complexities of cycling that Matthews’ genuine love of the sport was born. “When I first started riding,” he says, “I used to wear underwear underneath my knicks, I just didn’t know any different — I just thought that that’s what you had to do.” I hear a burst of laughter from the room next door.
“Really?” Kat yells.
“And I never told any of my friends about my riding, or clothes I had to wear. I’d never ride close to school either. I was so scared about what they’d think,” Matthews says. A car horn from outside pulls his attention away for a brief moment.
But cycling was just unbelievably fun. It gave him, he says, a joy that he couldn’t quite describe. It offered him a sense of freedom and purpose. An unanticipated direction. “And that was all I needed. I rode because I loved it, it was that simple. I still do.”
Six months after Matthews joined the talent identification program, he remembers, he was on the start line for the Australian U17 National Road Race Championship. It was hot and unbearably humid, the moist Queensland air glued to his skin. He was nervous. He barely knew how road racing worked; the intricacies of race tactics, drafting, the teamwork, the waiting, all of this was still strange and foreign to him. He did now know one thing, however: he enjoyed riding, more than he could have ever thought.
Before the race, Glenn Doney, the ACT State Academy of Sport’s coach at the time, sat Matthews down.
“Now, I want you just to stay in the bunch, just stay with the big group,” Doney said. “But then, with two laps to go, like we discussed yesterday, I want you to attack. Go as hard as you can. Do that, and you’ll win.”
“Yeah, okay,” Matthews said.
It was one of the first interstate road races Matthews had ever competed in. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, yet he liked this idea, the idea of winning. It had already caught his imagination like nothing else before. A fire deep within him had suddenly been set alight. He did as he was told. With two laps to go, he launched himself from out of the bunch. Hadn’t this been what Doney had said: attack and he’d win. So he went as hard as he could. And suddenly there was only open road ahead of him; he was on his own! The peloton had drifted back into the shadows behind him. Matthews remembered he couldn’t stop smiling. He pushed on harder. He was in control. Suddenly he had the power to genuinely influence something. Cycling had become his true vocation.
Still alone, minutes ahead of anyone else, Matthews did win. It was his first national championship. Six months earlier he hadn’t known what a road bike was, and yet there he stood, on top of the podium, the gold medal in the junior national championships in his shaking hand. It was the start of the meteoric rise of Michael Matthews.
In the real world, fairy tales don’t just ‘happen’. And in the real world, luck is the nexus between preparation and opportunity. And nothing worthwhile is ever achieved on your own; it’s the people around you, the supporters and the motivators, that make things happen, that make everything count. In the early years, as Matthews’ love of riding began to evolve, it was the support of his family that made everything possible. “Mum would wake me up at 5 am for the bunch rides. She’d take me to the gym two or three times a week. She took me to see my coach for bike skills.” Matthews’ parents, Donna and Allan Matthews, saw the power and influence that cycling could potentially have with their son. They could tell him he was a natural road racer, but it was the purpose they saw that riding instilled in Matthews, and the pure joy he took from it, that truly motivated them to give him every opportunity they could. It meant countless early mornings, endless kilometres of travel, and finding extra finances to buy the equipment Matthews needed. Both Donna and ‘Al’ also worked hard behind the scenes to develop a support network for him, keen to set a firm foundation for the road ahead.
“It was great to have people who actually cared about me… people who would want to meet with me early in the morning to do a gym session, or to meet for a bunch ride. It was just fun, I never really thought about what was going to happen,” Matthews tells me. “But none of that would have been possible without Mum and Dad and their support. They even re-mortgaged the house to be able to get me bikes and the equipment I needed to ride. They also helped me hold back, because all my friends were just out partying every night.”
Like many elite athletes, Matthews’ rapid rise through the ranks of world cycling often overshadows the work that goes into those early years, and it’s easy to lose sight of the people who helped along the way. For Matthews, however, it is his philosophy of riding for the joy of it, and his acknowledgment of the strong support network around him, that still guide him today in his professional sporting life. “I was just enjoying riding my bike. I felt so free when I was out riding,” he says. I see the smile on his face. It’s as though the words themselves have taken him back to the early morning rides, the gym sessions, and the countless trips away racing.
“I went from being around a fair few bad friends, friends who were a bit lost, to suddenly hanging around people who wanted to achieve something with their lives,” Matthews says. “And because I just loved riding, and was having so much fun, I always wanted to keep doing it. Back then, I never really stopped to think that there was a future in it for me, I was just enjoying it and I think that’s when you get the best out of yourself. That’s why, even today, I still just try and have fun with my riding — it makes you a better cyclist.”
It’s 2010. The main street of Geelong, the Australian host city for the World Road Championships, is filled with colour and noise. Thousands of people cram up against the barriers waiting for the peloton to reach the final bend. The peloton turns into the long finish straight. Matthews is in fourth wheel, sitting patiently behind Taylor Phinney, the young American who had impressed throughout the whole season.
The German powerhouse, John Degenkolb, opens up his sprint. It’s under 300 metres to go. Matthews is hidden, tucked behind their wheels. He is floating in the middle of the chaos, waiting for his moment to strike.
“Germany is going to get the gold medal!” The commentator is yelling, his voice already hoarse. But then, Matthews finds a gap; he cuts right and kicks.
“Wait, or is Matthews going to get him?” The commentator screams. The air is absolutely electric. “It’s Matthews charging to the front!” he says. “It’s Michael Matthews!”
Matthews crosses the line. He is a bike-length ahead of anyone else. The crowd erupt — it’s as though a bolt of electricity has shot through the whole street. Instinctively he throws his arms into the air. You can see the explosion of energy rippling through his body. There’s a look of shock and disbelief on his face as he glances to his left and then right. He has won. He has won! He punches the air over and over again as this realisation hits home. He is the world champion.
“The Australian has won the gold medal!” The commentator is still yelling in disbelief. “For the first time, Australia has won the U23 World Championship. Michael Matthews, that’s a name you won’t forget anytime soon!”
That afternoon in Geelong, Michael Matthews’ name was etched into cycling history. In a whirlwind journey taking him from suburban Farrar in Canberra, Matthews suddenly found himself on top of the world. People knew his name; they wanted his signature. He had interviews with the press and media commitments with national broadcasters. Journalists wrote about how he was one of the most exciting prospects in cycling. He was 20 years old and he was the best of his class in the world. He felt invincible.
Matthews had signed earlier that year with the Dutch WorldTour squad, Rabobank. Buoyed by the rainbow jersey, Matthews entered the WorldTour the next year with a mixture of nervous excitement and confidence. “I went through a stage, probably when I was with Rabobank — when I first turned professional — that I thought I could do anything I wanted,” he says. “And the first few months I probably could, but then, after that, reality kicked in.”
The realities of top level professional cycling can be tough to navigate, especially as a young U23 world champion. After several early successes on the WorldTour, Matthews says he knew he wasn’t really putting in all the hard work that was needed if he was going to join that elite bunch at the top. “I was definitely not training as hard as I should, or doing everything I needed to do to get to or stay at the top of cycling. My ego was probably too big,” he says, “but I think you have to go through those stages in order to learn, to move forward and become stronger as a person, and as a rider.” But by then he had Kat.
Matthews met his partner Katarina Hajzer at a velodrome in Apeldoorn, in the Netherlands. Matthews’ then housemate, Rohan Dennis, was racing the World Track Championships and he’d thought he’d come along to support him. It was then, from across the stadium, Matthews saw Kat, who was working for Shimano at the event.
“I was standing across the other side of the velodrome, thinking I was this cool, U23 world champion and pro cyclist,” Matthews says. He grins at me from the screen thinking about this moment. Kat walks back into the lounge room. “Yeah, ego through the roof!” she says rolling her eyes.
“So I was sitting there thinking I was pretty cool,” he says, “and Kat was on the other side of the velodrome. She was waving to her boss up in the crowd. So I pretended she was waving to me. I started waving enthusiastically back to her.”
He shakes his head.
“She just looked at me, like ‘who the hell is this idiot’ and turned away!” he laughs. “But I eventually found her on Facebook and we started talking, so I guess it worked out in the end!”
Katarina Hajzer was to become that honest voice Matthews needed to hear. She would challenge Matthews to be the best he could be. Their relationship, grounded on a foundation of honesty and commitment to each other, was to grow into a powerful partnership in both life and sport.
“When I met Kat, she helped me keep my head on my shoulders. She told me exactly what she was thinking. She didn’t hold back on anything. And that’s a big part of why I think we have such a strong relationship,” he says. “I finally had someone over in Europe to tell me what I actually needed to hear, not just what I wanted to hear.”
Kat allowed him to refocus and to keep his ego in check.
“We’re our own little team,” he says. “What we have built now, given the direction I was heading in before we met, is something pretty incredible. To have won a stage in each of the grand tours, to wear several of the different leaders jerseys, and to have podiums in a lot of the one day classics, has really meant a lot to me. It can be tough on your own, and it makes a huge difference having that kind of support at home,” he says. “I owe a lot to Kat.”
The public perception of Matthews is often filtered through his well-known nickname: Bling. The word carries with it strong connotations of money, flashy cars and jewellery. Although Matthews has these things, the name came from somewhere else. At the local velodrome, in the suburb of Narrabundah in Canberra, a parent of another junior rider, Reg Meisel-Dennis, pulled Matthews aside. “Mate, you’re just full of bling aren’t you,” he said, meaning it affectionately. “In every way! That’s it, Bling. Bling Matthews!” Just like that, the name Bling was born. Back then, Matthews wore large gold bracelets and necklaces, diamond earrings and colourful clothes. But for Matthews, the nickname meant far more than just that.
“When Reg gave me that name, he gave it to me not just for the clothes I was wearing, not just necklaces and the bracelets, or the way I looked, it was also how happy I was about life, and that I just enjoyed myself,” Matthews says. “I think people have their own ideas about what the nickname ‘Bling’ means. There could be thousands of different scenarios… But I like it — to me it’s more about my attitude to life, about how happy I am.”
It is this attitude that makes Matthews the fresh and positive force in professional cycling that he is. In a sporting world that is all about the 1 percenters and marginal gains, Matthews has not lost sight of why he rides, or the person he has fundamentally always been.
Cycling is a source of joy in his life. He is not cynical about what it has bought him. Through the sport, he has found love, and built a life in Europe. In many ways he has become a man through cycling. It has turned him away from the precarious and ill-defined paths of his youth. It has taken him on an adventure across the world to the top tiers of professional cycling. Even as more is expected of him as he reaches the pinnacle of the sport, Matthews is adamant about maintaining the view of cycling he had all those years ago.
“I still don’t view cycling as a ‘job’. Obviously it is a job for me, but I try not to think of it like that. I try and think of it as just enjoying riding my bike,” he says.
It’s close to 11 pm in Monaco. Kat and GiGi have both retreated to bed. Tomorrow, Matthews has to get up early; it’s the beginning of his racing season. He is calm, yet you can see the excitement, the anticipation, in his eyes. “I try and keep it fun, because I think for me if that fun goes, the results will go too,” he says as we begin to wrap up our talk.
“It’s too mentally hard and physically hard and you spend so much time away from home that you can’t afford not to be enjoying it. You have to try and get the most out of the ‘whole package’ because otherwise you’re not going to get very far in the sport.”
It’s here that one begins to understand why Michael Matthews has achieved so much in cycling. It’s that smile he can’t help but have when he talks about riding. It’s the love he has for where his bike can take him and has already taken him in life. It’s because cycling has already given him so much, and continues to do so. He rides because he loves it, and that’s the true measure of this kind of champion.
It’s hard to know how far Matthews will go in cycling. With a career already in the spotlight, the possibilities seem endless. The road ahead is his to ride. No matter where that road takes him, you can be sure of one thing: that Michael Matthews will be smiling all the way.
This season Michael Matthews decided to devote more attention to the Classics and the build-up. He’s set to start his 2018 season at Omloop het Nieuwsbad in February.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.