An interview with Matthew White, December 12, 2006
Teamwork is nothing new to Matthew White. A rider whose reputation is built on selfless, gutsy riding is reminiscent of a class rider before him, Neil Stephens, one of the first to be labelled a 'super-domestique'. But every now and then, he tells Anthony Tan, it doesn't hurt to win.
A deep cycling tan that comes with 11 years as a professional, along with the obligatory scars to show it hasn't all being fun in the sun; beach-blonde hair maniacially styled like Yahoo Serious, the character who starred in the film Young Einstein; a friendly smile that shows off his big pearly whites; and a personality that seems to be all about go, and little about slow.
Sometimes, Matt White talks so fast, even he can't keep up. Back in his home city for a few months before the European festivities begin, and just starting to "turn the legs over" after a short break away from his tool of the trade, the knockabout lad from Sydney's Sutherland Shire is already getting jumpy.
"Whether I'm part of the winning Tour team or part of the winning Giro team or part of the team that wins Paris-Roubaix [...] it's part of the season." - Matt White isn't a man obsessed by one race; to him, every race is important
"It's pretty cruisy in November," he begins casually, "but in December we start to ramp it up a little bit. I'm doing Tour Down Under this year, so yeah, a bit of extra morale to start racing back home."
This prompts the question, "Is Discovery Channel coming out to Oz next year?", but unfortunately for Australian cycling fans, the answer is no. Eight editions of the Tour Down Under have come and gone, but due to contractual obligations, White's only ridden the event twice.
To participate, he'll be riding as part of the Australian national team; no doubt, the 32 year-old will be hoping to repeat his success from the 2004 race, which saw him take an emphatic stage win in Hahndorf after a six-year drought.
"There's plenty of opportunities, but you've got to take them when they come around. As far as where I win, or where I have a chance to win, who knows where that will be," he says about his ambitions for another victory.
It could be more, perhaps a lot more, but over the years, White's value as a team player, as a man prepared to bury himself for the greater good of the team, week-in, week-out, on the flat or up a hill, for virtually the entire cycling season, has not gone unnoticed. It was this quality that led him back to his former team after the Sony Ericsson bungle, and Discovery Channel is where he's chosen to remain.
One of the world's best and most revered, the team headed by Johan Bruyneel and part-owned by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong has not been without its share of controversy in recent weeks - largely a consequence of the inclusion of Ivan Basso to their 2007 line-up.
On the eve of this year's Tour de France, which saw the three biggest favourites booted out of Strasbourg due to their implication in Operación Puerto, Bruyneel stated his team, along with the rest of the ProTour squads, "unanimously decided to uphold the code of ethics that was signed by all teams on January 1, 2005, which stated that no team would allow a rider to compete while under investigation in any doping affair".
Despite being cleared to race again by the Italian Cycling Federation - as happened to all of the cyclists previously implicated, much to the disgust of UCI president Pat McQuaid - Basso could still come back under investigation.
After signing this year's Giro d'Italia champion, however, Bruyneel's words made stark mention about a code of ethics, and were more to do with legality.
"When the accusations fell against Basso we had four specialist lawyers, who looked at all the rules and ethical codes, and came to the conclusion that there was nothing legally prohibiting us to reach an agreement with Basso."
Added Bruyneel, "We believe that even an athlete is innocent until proven guilty."
Asked for his reaction, White, not surprisingly, wouldn't be drawn into the ethics or legalities of Discovery's highest-profile acquisition. "What he can bring? He can bring the Tour de France back to Discovery Channel, that's for sure," he answers.
"Ivan wants to ride the Giro and Tour, like he did this year and like he plans to do next year. "Whether I ride the Tour or not, that's another thing, but I'll definitely be riding the Giro, so my first objective is to support him in the Giro, which I'm sure he can win."
A couple of months down the track, when the 2007 road season begins, ethics surrounding Bruyneel's star hiring will most likely be all but forgotten - unless new evidence brings Puerto back to life. Chances are that Basso will return to the peloton unhindered, and that's what Discovery Channel is banking on.
In his four years with the team including three as a member of US Postal Service, White's never been a part of their Tour de France line-up, and has just the one Tour to his name. So for him, being part of the winning team, he says, would be like winning the football World Cup.
"But," adds White hastily, not wishing to convey any self-interest, "whether I'm part of the winning Tour team or part of the winning Giro team or part of the team that wins Paris-Roubaix with George Hincapie, it's part of the season.
"The general public, they recognise one race a year and that's the Tour de France. But for anyone that knows cycling, it's a nine-month year and the team expects a lot from us over nine months. So whether I ride the Tour or not, it'd be a great honour to do - especially in part of a winning team - but, you know, you get paid to ride for nine months a year, and that's what I do."
Indeed, by mid-March next year, he'll be expected to firing on all cyclinders and all the way through April, acting as a valuable ally for riders like Hincapie, Stijn Devolder and Vladimir Goussev. "Oh, I'll definitely be on the roster for [the spring classics], definitely on the roster," White says excitedly. "I've got a lot of experience, riding those Belgian one-day races, so [I'm] definitely doing Flanders, [Paris-]Roubaix, San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem - all those big races."
Also mentioning the addition of always consistent American tour rider Levi Leipheimer and Athens Olympics silver medallist Sergio Paulinho coming on board, Discovery are well-poised to re-continue their spate of Grand Tour successes that began with Lance Armstrong and also included victories from Paolo Savoldelli and Roberto Heras.
So pumped is 'Whitey', he's already started racing again, but just for training. After more than a decade chewin' the bars in Europe, he knows where he needs to be at certain times of the year.
"I'm not a big fan of smashing the locals," he says with a wry grin. "I'm pretty cruisy at this time of year, and I usually try and save my damage for when it actually matters, when I've got a number on and when I get paid to do it, y'know."
Editor's note: Matt White will be pinning a number on this weekend in his hometown of Sydney, where he will be racing the inaugural Cronulla International Grand Prix along with cycling stars Robbie McEwen, Graeme Brown and Ben Kersten.