In the second instalment of our new mini-series, Retirement Chronicles, Philippa York has caught up with Matt Stephens to talk about his retirement from professional cycling.
Most people will know Matt from his work as a television commentator, where he has quickly established himself as one of the best in the business. But before he was calling races, Matt was one of the best professional riders on the British domestic circuit and, if he'd raced during the Team Sky era, there's no telling where his talents on a road bike would have taken him.
However, during the 1990s and early 2000s, the British domestic scene provided very few chances for homegrown talent to flourish and often riders like Stephens had to venture on their own to France or Italy to make a name for themselves.
Stephens did just that, graduating through the famous Parisian amateur team ACBB, as York once did, before turning professional with the ill-fated Linda McCartney team in 1999. He raced the Giro d'Italia with the team the following year before the project fell apart in dramatic circumstances a year later.
At the recent Rouleur Live event in London, Philippa got the chance to sit down with Matt to talk about how his world caved in on itself once his career fell apart, the challenges he faced, and how he bounced back to have a second career on the domestic scene before eventually hanging up his wheels for good at the ripe old age of 41.
Philippa York: Did you have any warning at all when it came to your retirement?
Matt Stephens: No, retirement was a total surprise, but there were two phases. My career was a short one. When I was racing at the best level with Linda McCartney in 2000 I was offered a contract after the Giro for another year. At the same time I was offered a contract from Cofidis as well. At the national championships David Millar had asked me to join. He was there at the time, and he said Cofidis needed someone who could climb. I said I’d already signed for Linda McCartney.
But going into 2001, the Linda McCartney team completely folded and I was left in a position where I had no income. I even had to sell the Principia team bike that they had so kindly given to me. They gave the bikes to the riders and I sold it for cash, at junction 16 of the M6, just to pay the bills. It was precipitous. I was there with Brad Wiggins, Russ Downing, John Tanner, Max Sciandri, all the riders that had signed for the team. 18 riders.
I didn’t want to look at my old training bike for 6 weeks because I was so despondent. I was actually quite depressed, I was not in a great place because I didn’t know if I could pay the mortgage. I had a young son who was just born, and I was only 31, so retirement wasn’t great. I joined the police, then slowly got my mojo back of wanting to race at domestic level, but the days of riding Grand Tours were gone.
PY: With the Linda McCartney situation, it feels like you instantly had to deal with what might have been and what happens now?
MS: I had to process what was happening. It wasn’t like, 'OK I’m going to retire' because I’ve got these things planned and lined up. One minute I had my race progamme and then the next minute at a Surrey training camp we got a fax through telling us the team was over.
Sean Yates came into the room looking a little bit white, with Max, and said ‘guys, the team isn’t going to happen’. We thought he was joking, it was surreal. He said 'please hang around, we’re going to ask Paul McCartney if he can bail us out'. But he didn’t want anything to do with it.
I was sharing a room with Neil Stephens who was one of the directeurs sportifs and he just got on a plane to Spain and left. I ended up ringing Dave Millar who had just come back from training at the time and he said he would talk with Alain Bondue, the team manager at Cofidis, and within that hour two other riders from Linda McCarney had already rung Cofidis and got a place on the team.
PY: How did you process that?
MS: I was in a state of shock. I didn’t have much money, so I wasn’t physically sick but I was retching because of the enormity of having a career that was now over. The year before I’d been at the Giro with Marco Pantani. I’d earned more UCI ranking points than the rest of the team put together by April and, as a result, got a deal, and then I was left with nothing. Everything was in tatters. It was like a punch in the solar plexus.
I had palpitations, I wanted to be sick and then I had to tell my wife, so I left it the whole day. We didn’t really text much back then so I rang her and straight away she asked what’s wrong. It was horrible. My mum gave me some money to make sure we could buy groceries, but it was really humbling – really really humbling – and a little bit frightening. As the days went on, the last thing on my mind was riding the bike.
I had to put food on the table so I signed on the dole for one week, which was humbling too, and all the time I was thinking here I am on social security but the year before I’d been riding a Grand Tour. I had to process that, but it was a headfuck. I ended up working in a supermarket, Morrisons, filling shelves, and not riding my bike. A month and a half passed.
PY: Had you had a normal job before?
MS: I had worked. I had been in retail before becoming British champion so that saved me. Pro cycling is such a short career but when you finally get to the point where you have achieved the things you wanted… I just believed that I had a pro career ahead of me. I thought that I had maybe five or six years left. I was riding better than ever and to have that taken away was a headfuck.
PY: So you didn’t have any real back-up?
MS: After the news I didn’t sleep for a couple of days because my mind was racing, thinking what on earth can I do to pay the mortgage and my wife was working part-time to look after our son. It was kind of frightening. I hadn’t been to university because I decided I wanted to go to ACBB and be a bike rider.
I had no regrets about that because that has ultimately led me to where I am today but at that moment it was completely unexpected. There was no phasing or tapering. It wasn’t like I was looking misty-eyed into the past or even looking into the future. It was like being beheaded, literally a phone call and your life has stopped. I had quickly to play catch-up with my emotions. Within a week or two I was working in the supermarket but still not happy. Actually, I was quite depressed.
PY: How long before you were able to not be angry about it all?
MS: It was a couple of years. I joined the police in the September of that same year because I needed to think about a career. I’d started riding again, doing some local races, but my heart wasn’t really in it. After a couple of months of not riding I was becoming impatient and developed a short fuse. It was a tough time at home, I was argumentative, I wasn’t happy and didn’t realise what it was until a mate told me to just come out for a ride. I was really unfit. I went out and within a couple of days I could think probably.
PY: You rediscovered the headspace that comes with cycling, which allows you to think through stuff that’s going on?
MS: It’s funny because what led to the circumstances was cycling but then it can also be quite redemptive. It’s a strange paradox, it can also offer up some solace. I got back into racing with Sigma Sports, which was great. Then I had my mojo back again. There was a point in my mid-thirties when I was one of the best riders in the UK and I was thinking I ought to be riding abroad but I just knew it wasn’t to be. I was a police officer running a team so my life was really busy.
So I had a second career, with the next decade riding domestically with a few international races, running a UCI team, giving young riders the opportunity to have a stepping stone to hopefully better things. Ryan Mullen of Trek rode for Sigma briefly, there were a few guys who went on to succeed and that gave me a lot of satisfaction. But my second racing career ended at Paris-Troyes, aged 41. I hit a signpost and fractured my leg.
There were two ends to my racing career and it’s strange because there was a real circular nature to it. Paris-Troyes. Only a 1.2 event, but a good race, and I had a funny feeling as I pinned my number on. I was thinking, 'wow this was my first race for ACBB, then 60 kilometres later I was in a fire engine because they had run out of ambulances'. I had fractured my tibia and that was that. The last time I pinned on a number.
PY: Were there a different set of emotions with that?
MS: The year before, I’d fractured my pelvis at the Rás in Ireland and it was awful but it was almost as if that crash at Paris-Troyes was a hand on my shoulder saying, 'Matt, stop now'. There was a serenity about it that was quite emphatic, it was like OK, that’s it. I almost needed something to tell me to stop, and breaking my leg in such a dramatic fashion wasn’t how I envisaged it, but that was it.
PY: With the second retirement was there more anguish?
MS: No, there was no regret. I was already a full-time police officer, I was running a UCI-registered team, and I was busy. I had a lot going on and I still managed the team the next couple of years, so that was good.
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