Sign up for our newsletter

From beating Porte on Willunga to taking a pay cut: British rider's first year in the WorldTour

12 Jun 2020

After six years as a domestic British pro, Matt Holmes finally made the WorldTour, only to be stopped in his tracks by the coronavirus pandemic

Words Joe Robinson Photography Tour Down Under/Chris Auld

In a matter of months, 26-year-old Matt Holmes went from being 'just another domestic British pro' to being the first rider to beat Richie Porte on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under since 2013.

Having signed for Lotto-Soudal, he had finally managed to make it to the big leagues of WorldTour racing after six seasons plying his trade in the UK with Continental squad Madison Genesis.

And with instant success at his first ever WorldTour race, it seemed like Holmes was at home in cycling's top flight.

That was until the coronavirus pandemic put an abrupt halt on the cycling season and Holmes suddenly found himself as part of a Lotto-Soudal team who agreed upon a collective pay cut and with no idea when racing would return.

With racing now pencilled in to start up again next month and the WorldTour in August, Cyclist caught up with Holmes to discuss the difficult logistics of getting back to racing with the UK's current quarantine rules, how the Lotto-Soudal riders took control of the salary cut situation and whether his Tour Down Under victory had sunk in yet.

Cyclist: It is now six months on from your surprise victory on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under but racing has been on pause since March. Does it even feel like that win was this season given the amount of time away from racing?

Matt Holmes: It does, I suppose. It’s a big break away from racing but in my six years at Madison Genesis, we didn’t race an awful lot so it wasn’t uncommon to go for long periods just training so it hasn’t felt that different for me. It just feels like the long training winters of riding solo that I am actually used to.

It could even be a bit of a benefit too, because looking at the Tour Down Under and my win at the beginning of the season, it suggests I may be able to go well when there has been no racing and it’s more reliant on who has trained the hardest in the off-season.

Cyc: Having not raced since February at the Ruta del Sol, has the motivation to keep training been an issue?

MH: I’ve never really struggled with keeping motivated, I actually quite enjoy the training especially living in Macclesfield on the edge of the Peak District. I’ve only been here a few years so it’s still quite new to me and I just like riding my bike around there.

It would have been more challenging if I was in Spain and unable to ride for a long period. I’m not a big fan of riding on the turbo although I have been riding up to three hours a day on it because that seems to be the norm at the moment.

Cyc: Now that a new calendar for racing is in place, have you been given a revised race programme by Lotto-Soudal?

MH: The team is going to divide all of the riders into three groups for each of the Grand Tours and I am on the provisional longlist for the Vuelta a Espana. That’s as far as we’ve been told, they will decide where the bigger riders are going first and then I guess I’ll fill the gaps.

I think the team is looking at having us ride in these pods although as you come into contact with so many outside of the team, I don’t know how useful a thing that will really be.

But I think the plan is to just have us as three groups within the team for the remainder of the season.

I also don’t think we are going to ride any training camps, either, as it goes against the bubble group idea and is probably hard to organise at the moment, so I think it’ll be a case of turning up to the first race and hoping everyone is fit!

Cyc: Being based in the UK, the coronavirus has devastated us here arguably more than any country in Europe.

Do you feel it is safe to resume foreign travel to return to racing and have you and the team considered the logistics around the current 14-day quarantine imposed for people returning to the UK from abroad?

MH: I don’t know, I haven’t given it too much thought as to what the best thing is. You have to stay at home at the moment if you return, don’t you? That could be a problem.

There will probably not be much racing for me when the calendar resumes so it should be ok. And my girlfriend is from Ireland so maybe we could just head there between races as an alternative.

Also, I guess we went from being fine one day to full lockdown the next so you would hope that it could go back to being fine. We are also still nine weeks off my first planned race so a lot can change and we will be in a totally different position by then, you would hope!

Cyc: Lotto-Soudal were also one of the first teams to confirm that riders and staff would be taking pay cuts with racing on pause. Who in the team made that decision?

MH: The decisions regarding staff were made among themselves and they’ve had a much worse situation than us riders with some of them being put onto the Belgian equivalent of furlough.

As for the riders' salaries, Adam Hansen suggested straight away that we needed to offer the sponsors something to show them we are willing to help rather than waiting to be given a big pay cut. We wanted to make sure, as riders, that we took the necessary sacrifices and that we appreciated the situation.

Hansen is a clever guy and knows what he is doing. He represented us by meeting with the team and negotiating the terms. It wasn’t just ‘oh, take a pay cut’, there were meetings to establish what the pay cuts would mean to the team, how it would benefit all involved and it was as good an outcome as it could be.

Cyc: You have a two-year contract with Lotto-Soudal, so do you feel a bit more secure knowing you have another year to prove yourself in the WorldTour?

MH: If I was on a one-year deal, I don’t think I’d be in trouble because I have won a race. If I hadn’t taken that win, I wouldn’t be so relaxed, I’d be keen to get back out there. But if the season doesn’t get going again, my win will be one of the only WorldTour wins for the team this year which can only be a good thing and should help with contract time next year.

I’ve also been thinking about it from the perspective of where I was this time last year. There were a handful of British riders who were good enough to be WorldTour but getting a bit old, of which I was one. If I was one of those still racing in Britain, this period would have probably brought an end to my cycling career.

It’s a nightmare for those UK guys, to be honest. They may get a chance to ride abroad later this year but without races like the Tour de Yorkshire, it is hard to get noticed.

What you would hope is that with the cycling industry going mad and business going through the roof, hopefully, this could benefit the UK scene. If all these bike brands are now making a fortune, it would be good if they could now help support some UK teams.

Cyc: Have you changed how you train since entering the WorldTour?

MH: I took on a team coach from Lotto-Soudal at the beginning of the winter and followed his plan. It was a bit different to my usual stuff focusing on steady, long miles and I personally felt like it made me a bit slow.

I didn’t feel great in Australia, despite the win, and then felt terrible at the Ruta del Sol. So I’ve reverted back to my old style of intense and short training plans.

I also got back from Australia a bit fat from the buffet and I was not fit and only had a week to recover from the jetlag before heading to Spain.

Then at the race, it was totally impossible, I couldn’t even contemplate getting to the front of the race. I wasn’t really prepared and I underperformed. I was trying to do a job in Spain but I couldn’t find consistency or form, which frustrated me.

The week after racing in Spain, though, I was doing ridiculous power in training so hopefully, now I can go into some hilly races with a bit of form and do something in a race.

Cyc: Back to that win at the Tour Down Under. Beating Richie Porte on Willunga Hill is very rare, are you still surprised by it?

MH: I just laugh about it. I’ll think about it while out training and start laughing. To me, it’s just like any other race but it obviously isn’t! It just seems funny it was me who actually won, it still doesn't feel that real.

It keeps me going. How it wasn’t that hard to win and I could repeat that if I keep training hard. It was one of the first hilltop finishes I’ve ever done so it obviously suits me, that finish. It’s common in WorldTour racing, isn’t it, so hopefully it will benefit me.

I was actually quite embarrassed to be up on the podium and the team seemed happier about the win than me. Caleb Ewan also turned to me after the stage and said ‘I thought somebody would beat Richie on Willunga eventually but I didn’t think it would be you!’