Nico Mattan (DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed) will have his final race Sunday in St. Eloois Winkel, Belgium. His final day as a race will be a criterium on a small, 1.5-kilometre circuit, to be raced 20 times. The Belgian is currently racing in the Circuit Franco Belge that runs through to Sunday, and because Mattan's festivities start at 14:30, it is unlikely that he will complete the final stage in the four-day race.
He told Sportwereld that more and more racers show interest in the crit around the block on Sunday. "Peter Van Petegem, Leif Hoste and Frank Vandenbroucke want to participate," Mattan indicated. There are actually more people interested than Mattan can allow on the small course, signs of his popularity among the fellow racers.
Mattan, who owns a clothing shop in St. Eloois Winkel, is not worried about lack of spectators. "I have 1,200 names in my phone book," he laughed. To celebrate the end of his 14 year career, he didn't want the traditional crit that ends in a sprint and miraculously the centre of attention, no matter how bad a sprinter they may be, wins it. "I wanted something special, something playful." So he invited some of Belgian's old greats, like Johan Museeuw, Fons De Wolf, Stan Tourné for a two-man team time trial event where one of the old pro's will be paired with ... a tourist rider!
Mattan explained that top stars like Boonen or Museeuw get the spot light regardless, but others must sell themselves. To get press, he used to race against horses or pose with a pin-up. Today, Mattan thinks racing is a little too serious. "I remember when four of us, Peter Farazijn, Chris Peers, Jo Planckaert and I, started the Tour of Flanders on a tandem. We rode through the centre of Brugge like that. But it's impossible today. They fly from the first kilometre and even in the earlier races there is no more time for some fun."
With Mattan gone from the peloton, is there anyone who can step in to fill his place among the too-serious racers? Mattan couldn't come up with anyone who shares his playful attitude except perhaps Gianni Meersman (Discovery Channel). "Not a real playboy, but somebody with flair," Mattan emphasized, saying that it is important to be a good rider first, then there may be time for play. "That's how I did it, too."
The crucial point of Mattan's career was in 2000, when he joined Cofidis, where he took his first professional win. "The French mentality. Tranquille, tranquille. If it doesn't work out today, then we'll do well tomorrow." He ranked 2001 as his top year, when he won the Driedaagse van De Panne, GP Plouay and the Giro del Piemonte. "[All] races with a high international rating," he smiled, remembering the year he won the prologue in Paris - Nice, beating prologue specialist David Millar.
Later in his career, he won the 2005 Gent - Wevelgem, which he contends was well deserved. His win was clouded by controversy when lone breakaway rider Juan Antonio Flecha was caught before the line. There were complaints that the organisers did not move the lead vehicles out of the way, and the draft helped the bunch catch Flecha, allowing Mattan to win.But Mattan insisted that "the cars didn't help me. They were going 35 [km/h], while I was doing 50. Even with my hands in the air I would have passed him."
Mattan will always be remembered for being a bit different from the rest, something that extended to his race preparations. "Before a prologue I wouldn't eat much. And in the Tour's rest days, the whole team would go training, but I would just lie on my bed. I knew it was the best for me."
As with many riders of his era, Mattan came under suspicion of doping, mainly through his ties to Bernard Saiz, also known as Dr. Mabuse. But Mattan insisted that Saiz helped him with means other than illegal products. "He is one of the people I learned the most from. He gave top training advice. He taught me to ride the Paris - Nice prologue in my head a few times. Those are tips that make a good racer."
Even though his career as a racer is at an end, Mattan will stay on as assistant directeur sportif with his current team, DFL-Cyclingnews. "Initially I thought it was a little too obvious to become sports director, right after the career. But I think I was the type of rider ideal to become a directeur sportif."