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An interview with Matthew White, December 11, 2007
Out with the old, in with the new
In 2008 Matt White will swap his Discovery Channel lycra for a suit and tie as he takes on the role as one of the three sports directors for the American Slipstream squad. Cyclingnews' Paul Verkuylen caught up with White for a coffee and a chat in his home town of Sydney shortly after his return to Australia.
The 33 year-old Australian had planned on continuing with the sport from within the peloton as a rider for one more season before retiring, yet he decided to hang up his wheels a little early to take up a post on one of the peloton's emerging squads. "This time last year retirement hadn't even crossed my mind. Things change through the year and one big thing was I got an offer as a director for Slipstream."
At the time White was midway through a tough Classics campaign that would culminate in a ride at the Giro d'Italia. "Jonathon [Vaughters] gave me a few months to think about it, as I told him I wanted to concentrate on the season right now". What we know now is that White did accept the offer, but it was not without a lot of deliberation. "You only retire once, so what ever decision I had to make, I had to make it for the right reasons."
The progression from rider to directeur sportif or even manager of some of the world's top squads has usually been the domain of the Europeans, as historically sponsorship dollars and backers come from the major European nations, yet with the growing number of English-speaking professionals coupled with the globalisation of the sport, Australians and Americans are being sought after to run an increasing number of professional teams.
White's experience within the professional ranks along with his attitude as a team player were no doubt contributing factors when it came time for Slipstream to consider new directors as the team was expanding it operations for the 2008 season. After beginning his career with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) team back in 1996, White has seen his fair share of employers in countries ranging from Germany, Italy, France and the USA, which have contributed to his intimate knowledge of the professional scene, and this was something invaluable to a squad like Slipstream.
"I have been a guy who can relate well between the young guys and the super-experienced guys, and the superstars. That's been the thing that I have been doing for the last ten years," he said.
Throughout his career, White has always been regarded as a valuable member of any team that he rode for; he may not have won that many races throughout his career, but plenty of top names have relied on him to deliver them to big wins. Possibly the biggest compliment he received was from seven-ime Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, who personally asked White to ride for him at the US Postal/Discovery team. For a domestique, helping the captain of your team to victory is just as satisfying as winning.
When White joins Slipstream as a director in 2008, he will become the fourth Australian to make the leap from rider to director after Neil Stephens (recently joined Caisse d'Epargne, previously of Liberty Seguros), Scott Sunderland (CSC) and Allan Peiper (T-Mobile). Each of these riders was well known in the peloton for similar reasons as White, a fact that is not lost on the Australian hard-man. "All great bike riders and had some great results. We are all quite similar guys, Neil Stephens was a workhorse that worked for Jalabert on the super team that ONCE was. Sunderland as well, led at times for himself and played a good team role throughout his career as well, Alan Pieper as well – same with me. We have all had great days, we understand what it takes to win, but we also understand the guys that have to do the work – we are not going to ask the guys to do anything that we haven't done ourselves."
It is for this very same reason that White believes that you don't need to have been the best in the world to become a director of a top team. "We weren't guys who came on the scene as 19 or 20 year-old superstars. Look at all those guys," he said referring to Stephens, Pieper and Sunderland. "They all had to chip away for a long time to before they got there." While believes this attitude is invaluable for young riders learning the ropes.
Some might think that swapping the bike for the team car so quickly could lead to the director remaining 'one of the boys' and not being taken seriously when offering instructions; White disagrees. While Slipstream is made up of a lot of young riders who will be doing the world's biggest races for the first time, "Those guys have a lot of respect for what I have done. I have done all the races from January until October. I haven't won them all, but I have been part of teams that have done special things, so I know what I am doing." As for the older guys in the squad, "They are all level-headed guys and there is a mutual respect there."
Slipstream's line-up for next year includes some very experienced riders. Riders like David Millar, Magnus Backstedt and Julian Dean will form the core of the team when it comes to the Grand Tours. For White, working with the younger riders is something that he is looking forward to; helping them develop and grow into the world's best will be a rewarding and satisfying part of the job. "There is definitely a lot of talent there," he said, "how they adapt to another level of racing and how they adapt to living in Europe – is partly my job."
Two of those emerging riders include White's former team-mate and fellow countryman, Trent Lowe, as well as Chris Sutton, the son of White's former coach, Gary Sutton. Both are riders that White believes have a big future in the sport. "I can't speak highly enough of both those guys. It was one thing that if I did come to the team, I really wanted to bring those two. I see them both as big, big talents, two totally different bike riders but two super-talents."
One thing that shines through when speaking to White is his selflessness, a trait that has served him well his entire career, even when asked to name the highlight of his career, he speaks of helping Stuart O'Grady winning. "I won a stage at the Tour of Switzerland, but for me the years I was with Stuey at Cofidis and to help him win Hamburg World Cup was a big day for me. I was under a lot of pressure to make the Olympic team... not only did I do a good ride I directly helped Stuey win his first World Cup race." This same selflessness should see him become a very highly regarded sports director in the future.
However, before he gets too carried away with next season, there is still his last ever criterium to think about. On December 16, White will line-up in his hometown of Cronulla, and since it was named as his last event, some of Australia's biggest names like O'Grady, Baden Cooke and Cadel Evans are flocking to say goodbye to one of cycling's most likeable riders on his home circuit. "Having all these guys here is going to make it special for me," he concluded.
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