One for the Road: An Interview with Katheryn Curi Mattis

Katheryn Curi Mattis Cascade Classic By Christopher See

Are you sure you’re retiring? That’s the question Katheryn Curi Mattis has heard repeatedly this week after her big day out at the World Championship road race. Mattis spend a good portion of the day in Geelong off the front riding solo. The American took home a Tissot watch as a prize for her aggressive ride. "Yes, I’m sure," she keeps saying.

Mattis counts a World Cup win at Geelong, a National Championship title, and a stage win at Tour de l’Aude among her results. "I have this feeling of euphoria about my career," she explained to me in a phone interview on Friday. "I’m afraid that if I do another year, I’ll lose this feeling," said Mattis who has spent the last six years racing with the Northern California-based Webcor team. Webcor will also leave the sport after seven years as a sponsor. Among the top riders who have worn Webcor green are Christine Thorburn, Erinne Willock, Gina Grain, Amy Dombroski, and Mattis.

Join me for a chat with Katheryn Curi Mattis. Learn what she was doing off the front alone in Geelong, which results she values most from her career, and why women’s cycling in the United States is struggling to keep sponsors. Also, she shares what’s on the menu at the Tour de l’Aude and why she cancelled her subscription to the American cycling magazine VeloNews in 2008.

Crazy American

Mattis never intended to spend the day alone in Geelong. She described the race as "really mellow" at the start, a situation that didn’t suit the American team. Mattis rolled up to road captain Amber Neben, and commenting on the slow pace, asked the experienced Neben if they should make some action. Racing without radios meant more moving around the field to find one another and decide tactics. Amanda Miller put in an early dig for the Americans, which led to several more rounds of attacks with the British and Italian teams exchanging fire.

The course never offered much chance for the attackers and as the bunch came back together, Mattis had another chat with Neben. "I don’t like to sit in," said Mattis. "I like to race hard," and indeed, Mattis has earned her biggest results from long breakaways. She won the 2008 Geelong World Cup after a 77 kilometer breakaway with Emma Rickards, and her national road race title came after a 20 kilometer solo effort. "I don’t sit in and follow wheels," Mattis emphasized.

Passing through the start-finish at the start of the third lap, Mattis attacked hard up the left side. "Crazy American, they must have thought." Mattis hoped that someone would come across, but no one ever did. Mostly, though, she was thinking in terms of team tactics. "This is perfect for the Americans," thought Mattis. The team began the day planning to protect Shelley Olds Evans, the fastest sprinter on the team. After watching the U23 race, they expected a relatively big group to reach the finish. Amber Neben and Evelyn Stevens are more at home in the hills, and didn’t have high expectations of the Geelong course. With Mattis up the road, the Americans had "a free ride."

Every bike race begins with a plan, but the road has a way of writing its own story. As it turned out, Evans did not have the best legs on the day. Mattis explained that it might have altered the American plan, if they had known at the outset that Evans was not on her best form. "Amber, Evie, and I got best at the end of a hard race," Mattis explained. For any of them to win, they needed to race hard from the start. Though Neben and Stevens attacked in the closing laps, too many fresh legs remained in the race for the two climbers to escape. Of course, it’s never possible to rewind the tape and run the race again. "You go in with a plan, and we didn’t know Shelly was on a bad day," said Mattis.

When her gap to the field reached nearly three minutes, Mattis wondered if she might stay away, but with two laps remaining, it was clear that she would be caught. When Emma Pooley came by, Mattis thought to grab the British rider’s wheel. Pooley flew by. "Well that’s not going to happen," Mattis said, laughing. Still, Mattis is proud of her long day out. "I knew it was my last race," she said. "I race hard. I don’t sit in and follow wheels. It’s the type of person I am, how I race bikes," she explained.

Finding a niche

Mattis came to bike racing from rowing. While doing graduate work at the University of Vermont, she picked up mountain biking and shortly after, took to the road. She moved to California and began racing for the Northern California club, Alto Velo. Northern California has a thriving grassroots racing scene, and whenever she could, Mattis also raced as a guest rider to gain experience at the bigger national races. In 2004, she joined RONA where she rode one season along side Genevieve Jeanson, Katrina Berger, and Erinne Willock.

From there, Mattis moved on to Webcor, where she found her biggest successes, beginning with a win at the 2005 National Championship. The tough Park City course that year suited her characteristics to perfection, and Mattis won with a signature solo break. Her 2008 win at the Geelong World Cup marked the first American world cup win since 2002 when Dede Demet Barry won in Montreal. A subsequent crash in New Zealand denied Mattis the chance to wear the World Cup jersey in Italy. She also missed a shot at riding the Olympic Games for the United States that year. Though her World Cup win might have ensured her selection, Mattis did not make the cut.

In retrospect, Mattis wonders if perhaps she should have tried to race full-time in Europe after her national win in 2005. But at Webcor, she found a "niche, and it got comfortable." There were fewer American women racing in Europe then, too, which might have complicated the transition. Katheryn Curi Mattis Cascade Classic By Christopher SeeMattis did travel to Europe to race with the national team. "I had a good balance with Webcor and the national team," she said. Earlier this season while racing for the national team, she won the seventh stage at the Tour de l’Aude. And yes, it was a solo attack.

Despite her own successes, Mattis said her best memories of racing come from races where she helped her team-mates win. She pointed to Christine Thorburn’s 2006 win at the Montreal stage race as a highlight. During her career, Thorburn won the 2004 national championship time trial and a bronze medal at Worlds in 2006. Mattis called her "a big sister" at Webcor and praised Thorburn’s leadership and mentoring. They remain close friends, and Thorburn now practices medicine in Redwood City.

Mattis gives another example of the team feeling that she valued. Last year, Evelyn Stevens joined Webcor as a guest rider at the Cascade Classic, one of the bigger races on the American calendar for the women. Mattis described Stevens as "humble and down-to-earth." After she won the first stage at Cascade, the team rallied to her support. "It was a great feeling," recalled Mattis. Teams don’t sacrifice for a guest rider every day. "We were all in for her," said Mattis, and Stevens went on to win the overall in the hilly Oregon stage race. "Stuff like that epitomized the team aspect that really drew me to the sport" said Mattis. When we celebrated team successes, "those are the experiences that stand out for me," she concluded.

Mattis said she has no plans for more bike racing. "I don’t want to be one of those riders who retires, but doesn’t really retire," she said. She is looking forward to trying some trail running. After years on the bike, it’s increasingly difficult to improve, but with a new sport, there is the constant joy of learning. Mattis will not leave the sport of cycling entirely. Instead, she plans to work with The Bridge, a development team supported by Alto Velo. She is looking forward to mentoring young riders and sharing her considerable knowledge of the sport.

Women’s cycling, an afterthought

It’s difficult times for women’s racing in the United States. Only three big teams remain for next season, Tibco, Colavita, and Peanut Butter & Co. The fast-approaching London Olympics makes the diminishing sponsorship support for women’s cycling all the more surprising and distressing. While teams like Skil-Shimano, Geox, HTC-High Road, and Garmin-Cervélo run women’s teams along side their top level men’s teams, none of the men’s teams on the North American circuit do the same.

While at Worlds, Mattis overhead a pair of pro tour riders complaining about the food, comparing it unfavorably to their team’s chef. Like many woman riders, Mattis has her share of tales from the road and they stand in stark contrast to the experiences of the top level men. One year at the Tour de l’Aude, the entire race stayed at a school for disturbed youth. Certainly, there was no chef. Dinner that night came in plastic containers, microwave ready. She recently spoke to someone involved in the Garmin-Cervélo merger who expressed shock at how little money even a top level women’s team receives. For her part, Mattis has worked part-time for a wine importer for most of her career.

Why is there so little support for women’s cycling? Mattis answers bluntly: "The sponsors feel there is no return on their investment." The sport lacks high profile races and receives little media attention. "We need more races like Philadelpia," where the women’s Liberty Classics runs on the same course as the men’s race, much as the women’s Ronde van Vlaanderen runs ahead of the men. Mattis blames USA Cycling, in part, and she argues that the cycling organization "needs to put pressure on promoters." "USA Cycling should require a women’s race every time they approve a permit," she said. And not just a criterium. "The Tour of California, all you can give the women is a crit?" Mattis would like to see promoters required to give the women at least 40% of the distance the men race. It’s not equal, but it would be a start, in her view. "Women are an afterthought in cycling," said Mattis.

The ex-national champion also holds the media responsible. "It drives me batty!" she exclaimed. "There are these great role models in cycling, but there’s no exposure," she said, rattling off names like Kristin Armstrong, Christine Thorburn, Coryn Rivera, Shelley Olds Evans, and Evelyn Stevens. Indeed, Mattis has yet to see her own ride at Geelong this year. "A young girl should be able to open VeloNews and see women riders," she argued. In 2008, Kristin Armstrong, one of the most successful woman riders in the United States, finished second at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. That year, the race ran on the same day as the men’s race, just as it does now. Armstrong’s ride received no mention in VeloNews, though the magazine covered the men’s race. Infuriated, Mattis cancelled her subscription.

Writing an ending

No doubt her deep satisfaction with her own career contributes to the frustration Mattis feels when the media and race promoters ignore women’s racing. She views her work with the development team as a chance to give something back to a sport that has brought her so much joy. "I love competition," she said. But Mattis said she will miss the team relationships most of all now that she is ending her career. The women compete hard on the bike, but when it’s over, many riders remain close friends off the bike. It’s those personal connections and the sense of community that Mattis valued in her career and will miss most now that she has ridden her last race.

As surely as the Passo Turchino announces the coming of Spring, as surely as the rain falls on the Koppenberg cobbles, and as surely as the sunflowers bloom in July, every rider has a last race. Bike racing is a capricious business, and rarely can riders choose their own endings. With her team-centered perspective, Mattis would likely have preferred to celebrate an American victory in Geelong. Still, it’s hard to resist a long solo break, especially for a rider whose biggest successes have come when she has decided to go up the road alone. Of her ride in Geelong, Mattis said, "I raced true to who I am." Sometimes real life writes the best endings.

Photo: Christopher See.
Interview by Jen See.

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