What matters most
For all those who have chased him, it’s hard to imagine Brian Matter ever thought about quitting.
But the professional mountain bike and cyclocross racer from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, was at that point in 2004: tired of eating peanut butter and rice, frustrated by meager winnings and fed up with long drives to race all over the country.
“I was still doing the national mountain bike scene, and the national mountain bike scene was dying,” Matter recalled. “No money at all. I was done. Andrea (now his wife) is in nursing school, I’m losing money and it’s not fun anymore.”
Twenty six years old at the time, Matter pondered the path of many others: a job in the bike industry, possibly as a sales rep for Trek.
But then he won the Ore to Shore Mountain Bike Epic, the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40 and the Iceman Cometh in a five-month span. He became the first Midwest triple-crown champion and found a new path to pursue his passion.
He focused on racing in the Midwest, and has been the dominant mountain bike racer in the region over the last decade.
In that span, the former high school wrestler has won 13 of the big three races, including an unprecedented six Fat Tire 40s, four overall championships in the Wisconsin Off Road Series and dozens of other events. Nobody wants to see him in the final group heading to the finish line.
And based on his success in 2014, he’ll be there for a long time.
Two more years?
Riding for KS Energy Services/Team Wisconsin, Matter nearly duplicated that 2004 triple crown this season, winning the Fat Tire 40 and Iceman, and taking second in the Ore to Shore, just a half wheel behind Cole House.
Matter has said often he enters each season thinking he’ll ride as a pro for “two more years.” It’s become something like the promise of “free beer tomorrow,” rolling on and on and on.
“Now again I just had a really solid season, and possibly the best season I’ve ever had,” Matter said. “I have to again question why only two more years.
“If there was any downward trajectory in the past couple years … but since it keeps going up, there’s no need or thought to worry about any sort of retirement talk yet.”
Matter’s dream of being a professional cyclist took shape in his boyhood neighborhood in Pinckney, Michigan. Games of bicycle tag led to longer adventures on the Pinckney-Potawatomi Trail, then a trip to Arizona in 1996 that launched his national pursuit.
He confessed that he eased up during a high school wrestling match, a qualifier for state, to head west.
“That one day, I made that decision, I wanted to be a bike racer, not a wrestler,” Matter said. “Another three weeks of wrestling practice wasn’t sounding like fun. Twenty years later, I don’t regret that decision.”
His career has been equal parts dream and pragmatism.
He learned early that very few pros make big money in mountain biking, and that racing locally and cutting expenses meant a better bottomline than chasing national prestige.
“It would have been great if I was making $150,000 a year for the last 10 years, but that didn’t happen,” he said. “I’m making significantly less money than that, but I’m making that work with my lifestyle.
“We’re married. We travel to Arizona. We own a house. We make it happen. I’m getting smarter. I’m getting stronger, making a little more prize money. We’re comfortable as a family.”
The lifestyle may not be rich in financial rewards, but luxurious in experiences.
A little tired of the same Midwest races, he’s mixed in the Whiskey 50 in Arizona and Tran-Sylvania Mountain Bike Epic in Pennsylvania. When bored with mountain biking, he focused on cyclocross. Matter then raced ‘cross in Belgium and China and competed on a U.S. World Cyclocross Team.
“Each year, there’s a different little dream,” Matter said. “In 1995, the dream was to be on that junior development team, then have fun and travel around the country. Then it was race ‘cross in Belgium.
“Somehow, I’ve been making it happen,” he said. That’s what keeps me motivated. Looking back and seeing all those moments where it happened. Hard work, striving, and taking advantage of the opportunities.”
New team energy
The latest opportunity came this year, in the switch to the KS Energy Team, after a decade of racing for GEARGRINDER. It proved to be a terrific fit for a rider who never spent time on a large national squad.
“It never felt right, never fit,” Matter said. “I feel really comfortable in this routine of being the underdog, comfortable on the local team.”
Dave Eckel, the KS Energy Team director, said the veteran pro adds far more than victories to the squad of roughly 40 riders.
“Just having the name ‘Brian Matter’ and all the respect and professionalism he has brings a lot of energy and excitement to our roster, especially for the younger riders who aspire to become the next Brian Matter,” Eckel said. “It made for great morale and a positive, strong, motivating environment on the team.”
Steady, not flashy, and without the national pedigree, Matter can be overlooked on the start line, even with his tremendous record over the past decade.
Eckel has watched him and formulated an idea of why he wins so often.
“He’s just very, very patient in races,” Eckel said. “He rides clean. I can’t recall a mistake he made that cost him a finish or a race result this past year. No bad lines. No crashes. He just put himself in the right place at the right time, whether it’s a local race in WORS or beating national contenders at Iceman. He’s just very calm when it counts.”
Matter attributes much of that to experience, seeing all the scenarios play out over 20 years, and preparing to dictate them for at least two more.
Tom Held lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and writes The Active Pursuit blog for silentsports.net.