Matt Brammeier: Champion Rising
Sitting semi-slouched on a restaurant chair in one of the few quiet corners of the Hotel Mecure in Roeselare, Matt Brammeier exudes the relaxed demeanour of somebody who has finally found his niche within an occupation that has gifted him nothing. The path to where he now finds himself has demanded deep self-belief and a survivor’s instinct, eyes always open and an ear constantly to the ground, as he jumped from each stepping-stone of collapsing team and contract disintegration beneath his feet to the next in Indiana Jones-esque fashion.
Despite multiple Irish National Champion jerseys and the hard-earned respect of his more household name peers for the invaluable work a rider of his nature performs, it is one split second, one that went sickeningly viral, that shot Matt Brammeier to worldwide cycling fame. ‘That Crash’ – “the famous one” as he calls it – in the 2015 Tour of Utah, into an errant car on a corner of a high speed descent, left Matt truly lucky to be alive. Hopefully Matt’s legacy in cycling will not be confined to the somewhat tasteless ‘clips-of-crashes’ re-run shows on TV but carved from his new venture, the Africa Rising clothing appeal. A labour of love which aims to put something back into the sport and has been shaped by his journey through it; Matt is collecting unwanted, perfectly useable cycling kit and distributing it to riders across Africa who would not normally have the means or access to buy it themselves.
Always Riding: Let’s talk heritage: I’m from Liverpool myself so much of your switching between British, Welsh and Irish flags during your career makes perfect sense to me, knowing the melting pot nature of the city, but Brammeier – that’s not a typically Scouse surname…
Matt Brammeier: Yeh, there’s some German in there somewhere, but way back down the line - nothing I really know about. My grandparents are Irish and my dad was born in Wales, so that's where the Welsh and Irish connections come in. I was born in Liverpool -the proper side, not the Wirral! My Dad is a fireman, loads of firemen are cyclists, so I got into cycling through my dad, went out with him and gave it a go, then I went to my first race with my dad and was hooked from there! I started out with Liverpool Century, I rode with them until I was a Junior, then moved on to a team and started going abroad racing and went from there.
AR: That first team, DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed over in Belgium, how did that come about?
MB: I was with the GB U23 Academy for a couple of years then decided it wasn't really for me as I wanted to go on the road. Back then there were no options on the road, there was no Team Sky, it was track focused. I was doing alright on the track, but not really… sometimes I'd ride the major competitions and sometimes I'd be left out. I was good mates with Rod Ellingworth. He sat me down one day and said “Right, you need to make a decision about what you want to do – and if I was you…” sort of thing. My talents were more on the road rather than the track so I gave that up and went for it on the road and moved to Belgium with the Cycling News Team.
AR: Picked up your suitcase and went off to seek your fortune?
MB: Yeh, I'd moved away from home to Manchester when I was sixteen to ride with the academy so it was pretty easy really - I'd been to Belgium a few times before with the academy so I knew some people there so that's where I ended up. I still rent an apartment there now after ten years.
“My talents were more on the road rather than the track so I gave that up and went for it on the road and moved to Belgium with the Cycling News Team."
AR: You did a few years with similar, ‘smaller’ Belgian teams, Profel, An Post, and then the big move came: HTC. What was that jump up in level like?
MB: Well, a few years before HTC I had a crash, 2007, I got hit by a cement truck, that was pretty touch and go whether I'd ever be back on the bike again. So that kind of kick started my career in a strange way! I’d done the first couple of years in Belgium, it was getting really hard and then this happened to me - but it made me realise what I had, sitting there on the sofa for two months makes you realise. It made me hungry and when I got back to racing the results started coming. I won the Nationals. I'd raced with Cav a lot previously and he knew what I could do, what sort of rider I was, what I could do in the lead outs etc. So, we got talking… Yes, it was a big step. But I moved up well and had a good year there. I had just signed a new two year contract and then it all fell through…
AR: That was a pretty major team collapse! Luckily, Quick-Step arrived with a contract for you – you went from ‘world falling apart’ to ‘biggest team in Belgium’!
MB: In hindsight, it wasn't great with Quick-Step. I had a few other choices, could have gone to a few other teams - which maybe, looking with hindsight, would have suited me better. I didn't really fit too well at Quick-Step, with the program I wanted to do and the type of rider I am… it was always difficult there, it's such a Belgian team. I didn’t get a lot of the races I wanted to do. Especially in the Classics, we had, like, fifteen riders all wanting to race the Classics and it was so hard to get in. I did a few of them but not really the ones I wanted to do. A lot of the work I do in races is not really seen, unless it's all on TV, so you're relying on your teammates to relay your work back to the DS and for them to relay that back to the management. For whatever reason, that wasn't happening. I just didn't click well there - not that I didn't enjoy it, but it wasn't perhaps my favourite year…
AR: Then came the move to Champion System… a hard step down, maybe?
MB: The two years after Quick-Step were two really difficult seasons, so many teams stopping, left right & centre. I hadn't got any massive results - ok, I'd won Nationals and stuff, but it was a hard time in cycling. But going to Champion System was good! At the time it looked like a step down but looking back on it now it was one of the most enjoyable times ever! The program I had was maybe the best I'd ever had, a really good set of races, some great travelling, a great group of guys, seeing the different cultures - a lot of the races we did were over in Asia… some of them were pretty adventurous! I really enjoyed that year!
AR: And then, Synergy Baku Cycling Project?
MB: Pretty challenging! Basically they had one purpose - to get a certain rider to the Olympic games, so it was just points scoring missions for this one rider. It was an interesting team, but maybe not really at the level I wanted to be at. I just had to knuckle down and get on with it, take it on the chin a little bit. Again we had fun, good group of guys, we had a laugh - but I had no real purpose in that team and didn't feel I was able to deliver my true value in the team. But, again, that year five or six pro teams stopped so a lot of people were out of work… I can see now that I was lucky to be there on a team and to get a good deal from them. It got me through the year! Anyway, I guess I must have done something good because it led to my place here, on this team – MTN-Qhubeka as it was then.
AR: How did that come about?
MB: In this game you need to know people and know what's going on behind the scenes. I know Brian and a few guys on the team: I was actually going to come here in 2013 after Quick-Step but it didn't quite happen for one reason and another, last minute stuff. But, when it happened, I immediately felt like I belonged here and that I belong in a team like this, one I can get stuck into my role and deliver my true value. As soon as we started talking I knew it was the team I wanted to go to - I know it sounds cliché but just the stuff they are doing with the charity, Qhubeka. There was just this whole other angle to it. After being in this sport for so long - it doesn't get boring, but it can be the same thing, week in week out. This was totally different and totally refreshing. It was the number one choice of team that I wanted. I feel lucky - you may have looked at me riding on a Conti team and thought there was no way back at the age I was, so I was pretty happy to get back up here with these guys!
“But, when it happened, I immediately felt like I belonged here and that I belong in a team like this, one I can get stuck into my role and deliver my true value."
AR: The guys seem to buy into the whole mission and ‘other angle’ as you put it…
MB: Oh definitely! Especially when new guys join the team and visit some of the townships and the places where the team makes a difference. It's a big part of why we go there each year. There's a reason why all of the riders are on this team in the first place. I’ve spoken to Brian (Smith) & Doug (Ryder) a lot about this, they don’t just go and get the best talent - of course, the riders have to be talented and they build a sensible team - but one of the first things they look at is personality and what a rider can bring to the team, what type of guy they are and what they can do for the charity and the brand, so everyone is into it and everyone is always trying to do that bit extra for the charity.
AR: Is it this exposure to the work of the Qhubeka charity that led to your Africa Rising initiative?
MB: I guess so, I just got talking with my teammate Adrien Niyonshuti one day and watched the movie Rising From Ashes while we were away at a stage race somewhere and talked about his academy back home. It had been something I'd wanted to do for years. I hated it when first started getting all this kit; when I started cycling I had nothing, my dad's mates were giving me bits of clothing, I had one red arm warmer and one black arm warmer, none of my kit matched and it was a bit crap. All of a sudden, you turn pro… I remember going to my first training camp in California and I couldn't bring all of my new kit home! I had to courier loads of it home as I just couldn't carry it all! The best quality kit you can buy and I couldn't even use it all. I got to the end of the season and still had like twenty or thirty percent of it still in the plastic wrapper! What are you supposed to do with it all!? At first I'd take it back to Liverpool and give it to the club but soon realised there were people who had even greater need. It clicked when I spoke with Adrien, knew we should make something happen. The connection was made!
“I remember going to my first training camp in California and I couldn't bring all of my new kit home! I had to courier loads of it home as I just couldn't carry it all!"
AR: How is it all going? There seems to have been a fantastic response!
MB: Collecting the actual kit has been, actually, super easy. The reaction from the public has been incredible! We got a couple of months into it and we were totally overwhelmed, we had to start turning stuff down. We had bike shops, cafes, clothing companies all ringing us, people wanting to help and donate; a lot of riders would message me and say “I'm at such-and-such race, can I leave some stuff at your bus?” We physically couldn't handle any more! We have so much stuff, about a ton of clothing, and it is just two of us! It takes a lot of work and documenting. We are now working on pulling in some sponsors to get the shipping done, that's our main issue now and why we have had to slow it down, we have so much stuff and now we need to ship it over. That’s basically the idea behind the coffee I am selling, those proceeds go towards the project but we still need a couple of thousand pounds more. Fingers crossed, we are currently talking to a few shipping companies – seriously, if anyone is reading this and thinks they can help with this side of it, the logistics, and wants to get involved, get in touch!
AR: We touched upon crashes a little earlier. You had another one, didn't you…?
MB: Ah! You mean The Famous One?
AR: Yep! The one that propelled you into the limelight for all the wrong reasons! What do you remember?
MB: Not a lot to be honest! We were climbing the second to last climb of the day, we had a guy up front, Natnael Berhane, who had a good chance for GC and the stage so I was trying to get over to him. I was on a good day, climbing well. I was only 45seconds back so it was full gas to try and get back up to him and we started the descent. For some reason, the Commissaires allowed the cars to come back past us, which they shouldn't do... So, as soon as we started descending we start passing those cars and I'm approaching a sweeping corner. I let my brakes go a bit to try and get past the cars and get some clear road ready for the corner - I could see it was tight so I wanted to have the whole road for the corner – but, being at such a high altitude the air was so much thinner, so you accelerate faster and before I knew it I was totally out of control and going too fast and Bang! That was it. The next thing I know I'm waking up in hospital - which was very lucky! I had to watch the video once, with a lawyer, to work out what happened as part of the safety inquest with the race organisers, to avoid it happening again. He made me watch it… I wish I hadn't. I never want to watch it again.
“I had to watch the video once, with the race organisers.... He made me watch it… I wish I hadn't. I never want to watch it again."
I was pretty messed up for a while, but, just from the crash in 2007 with the cement truck, I’d learnt so much: I came back too fast from that one, I was young and keen to get back racing, I made stupid mistakes and perhaps I'm still paying for them in some ways. So this time I didn't ride my bike for two months, didn’t even walk for one month. It took a while. It was, though, probably the best time in the year for it to happen, I had so much time to recover, pretty much four or five months to get back. I took it super slow, worked with the physio everyday. got everything working properly again.
AR: Ok - how about Matt Brammeier as a fan? Watching Nikki (Harris, Matt’s wife and Boels Dolmans pro rider) racing, does it take you away from the day-job?
MB: Kinda - I enjoy it but I can get a bit stressed out with it. In fact, I get more stressed out with it than I do about me racing sometimes! It's a different sport and can be far more stressful. I can see how hard she trains and how well she wants to perform, and of course, I want her to do well and for her to be happy. I love it in the off season, getting down there to watch the race. Maybe nowadays I sit in the camper and watch the race on TV if it's raining, though…
AR: You mean you don’t get yourself down to the pits and get the pressure washer out for her?!
MB: Hahah! Luckily not anymore! She's good enough to have her own mechanic now. For the first few years I did… But it was F’in grim!