No cyclist has everything. Peter Sagan will tend to be found with the other denser-muscled guys when the passes get long and the altitude gets thin. Sean Kelly won every monument more than once, save the glaring anomaly of not one win at Flanders – the one that should have been meat and drink to him. And Matt Stephens would be the first to admit that when it came to sprinting, he was more Agatha Christie than Linford. But that’s the key to the man: if you picked up the paper on a Monday morning and saw Matt had won at the weekend – which was very often – you would know just by the bare result that it had been a great race, won in the grand style. The only style he knew.
That adventurous style – attacking when nobody wants to attack or climbing at a tempo where nobody is comfortable – brought Matt some notable results, not least of all his quite brilliant ride to become National Road Race Champion. On a sweltering day in June 1998, he simply rode away from the cream of British cycling to take a magnificent solo victory in Solihull, the nation’s cycling glitterati powerless to catch him despite their combined might against his lean frame.
That ability to dig deeper than the others was well known to anybody who’d shared a road with the engaging, self-deprecating, friendly character who was such a popular member of the bunch. In 1995, he’d come 8th in the last ever World Amateur Road Race Championships high in the Columbian alto, again in the blistering heat that was anathema to his fair complexion. The following afternoon it was as different as mountain weather can be, as Abraham Olano dramatically held off Marco Pantani and Miguel Indurain despite finishing with a flat back tyre in black sheets of rain: the best podium at a Worlds ever? That was the company Matt was keeping.
He earned himself a ride at the 2000 Giro d’Italia, but the luck he often deserved but rarely received stayed true to form and injury and illness forced him out at the midway point, despite a rousing battle to stay in the race after a heavy fall in apocalyptic weather on the very first stage. And luck brought his illustrious career to a premature end when a smashed kneecap was all he was given for leading the previously humble Sigma Sport team to a prestigious appearance at Paris-Troyes.
Fortunately for us, he was only lost to the saddle, not the sport, and his modest, knowledgeable and enthusiastic commentary has enlightened many a dull day on Eurosport and GCN. Most recently he has carved himself a niche as the presenter of Sigma Sport’s innovative podcast, Matt Stephens Unplugged. Impossible not to like. Perhaps you’re not desperate enough for Friday to come round already? Don’t say we didn’t warn you. Oh, and we haven’t even got on to the subject of Matt’s alter-ego, Flemish cycling’s legendary no-hoper, Kenny Van Vlaminck. If you meet Matt at a LeBlanq gathering, it’s two for the price of one. He’s all about value.
How many other National Champions can say they spent the first half of their cycling career as a supermarket manager and the second half as a member of Her Majesty’s Constabulary? In these days of British Tour winners and Lottery funding it seems incredible, but Matt clocked up his training miles by riding to the shop and later the cop shop. And that, as far as we’re concerned, is all you need to know about him. A national treasure.
by John Deering
Image Credit - Graham Watson
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