If you pay any attention at all to the Victorian racing scene you will have heard of Matt Clark, a climber who rides for the Charter Mason Drapac Development Team. In early March Matt won the Mt. Buller Road Race for the second year in a row and back in January he won the Tour of Bright — the biggest and most coveted amateur stage race in Victoria.
Matt grew up in the small town of Beechworth in north-east Victoria and now spends most of his time in Ballarat where he’s in the third year of a full-time secondary-school teaching degree, specialising in PE and Maths. I caught up with Matt to find out about some of his favourite training rides, how he became such a strong climber, and what his goals are for the future.
Congratulations on your win the other weekend at Mt. Buller. It was a fantastic start to the season for you and your team.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s certainly something the team looked to when the calendar came out. There were a lot of guys that were hoping to go well there so we were just lucky that we had three strong riders that all had a really good chance to win [Matt, Jason Spencer and Trevor Spencer] and another two guys on the team who were happy to support us.
We weren’t sure how we were going to play out the race — it was just going to be a matter of seeing who had good legs and who was going to make the first move from the other teams, but the moment we hit the bottom of the climb Trevor attacked really hard and broke it up straight away. It was a bit unexpected but certainly good to see that he’s able to back himself this early in the season.
You climbed Mt. Buller in something like 39 minutes and 40 seconds. Isn’t Simon Gerrans’ best time up there about 39 minutes as well?
I think my time was around 39 minutes 48 seconds according to Strava. Some people have said Gerro’s best time is 39:50 but I think Scott McGrory might have said 37 minutes. You’ve always got to be careful when you’re comparing times — Gerro would have done that solo but it’s quite different to do it in a race. But it’s certainly good to have some people comparing me to really strong riders like him.
What are some of your favourite rides around your home town of Beechworth?
In Beechworth we’re blessed with a number of climbs. The town itself is built on a hill so you’ve got no choice — whenever you go out you’re either climbing out of town into Stanley or you’ve got to descend out of town. It’s 13km to the nearest stretch of flat road. So you can always mix up the climbs. And really, any combination of the roads around Beechworth is fantastic.
One road they’ve sealed within the last 12 months leads from Myrtleford up the back way to Stanley and it’s now 10km of sealed road at an average gradient of about 5%. That includes a fairly gradual 2% for the first few kilometres and then a flat section in the middle, so the parts in between are actually quite steep and challenging.
The sealing of that road has created a whole range of new loops which are quite popular with the local cyclists in Beechworth. On top of that, it’s quite easy to go to the mountains like Mt. Hotham or Mt. Buffalo — they’re either a short drive away or a nice, tough ride away. And then there’s the Buckland Gap which is always a tough way to end a ride when you’re coming from Bright and the mountains near there.
What are some of your favourite rides around Ballarat?
There’s quite a few good loops we can do around there, including some good climbs out towards Daylesford. On the other side of Daylesford, heading towards Castlemaine and Bendigo, there are some quiet roads with some really strong bergs.
It’s really dictated by the wind direction when you’re training in Ballarat, which is hugely different to in Beechworth. Back in Beechworth you pick a ride that you want to do and you just go and do it, but it Ballarat we’ve found that you’ve really got to check the weather conditions before you go and whether those conditions are going to change during your ride.
Our plan is normally to ride out with the headwind and back with the tailwind. But that doesn’t give us the most choice with our rides and we find that we sometimes do the same ride for a week. But as long as you’re riding with a group around Ballarat then you tend to be able to enjoy it.
There’s a group of four or five of us that get out quite a bit: myself, Pat Shaw [who rides for Huon-Genesys in the National Road Series], my brother Brad and a couple other guys as well. It’s really good having them to ride with — as long as you’ve organised someone to ride with, even if the weather’s not too good or you’re not feeling too good, you’ve got that motivation to get out there. You know that the others are going to be there for you.
I’m guessing you hit up Mt. Buninyong quite a bit when you’re in Ballarat?
Yes and no. We certainly have a look at it a few times before the national championships [which are held in January] but we try not to override it. I think you get to a point with some climbs where you really start to hate them if you do them too often. You can certainly start to get some not-too-good memories on Mt. Buninyong.
There’s also a magpie on the top of the hill which seems to be there six months of the year so you need to avoid the hill when you know the magpie’s out.
How did you get into climbing and what was the first climb you ever did?
I guess I knew from a very young age that I wasn’t going to be a sprinter — I was always as skinny as a rake and I was being beaten by guys two years younger than me at the velodrome. So that only left me one thing really: climbing. Where I lived and grew up has certainly helped my climbing too.
Back in Beechworth we’re lucky to have the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail which is all sealed so it’s actually quite good for road bikes. The climb into Beechworth [from the Wangaratta side] is 13km long and it’s between 2% and 4% the whole way. The first few years I was riding that was my main training route, because it was so safe and I was so young (ed. just eight or nine years old according to his team’s Facebook page.)
Another memory is of going up Mt. Buffalo with a few groups. My first time up there I remember riding with one other guy and he’d done the climb before. At every corner I was asking “How much further?” and he kept saying “One more corner, one more corner” until the second-last corner where he didn’t answer me; he just attacked.
I still love getting back to Mt. Buffalo when I can — it’s a great climb.
Would you say Mt. Buffalo is your favourite climb or is there another one that really stands out?
I think Buffalo would have to be there, just because it’s so close and so easy for me to get to. But certainly Mt. Buller as well. I think that’s a great ride from the base [in Mirimbah]. It’s covered in, it’s quite a steady climb and it’s really enjoyable.
Are you the sort of climber that enjoys climbing at quite a high cadence or do you like a bit of grinding?
I guess I’m somewhere in the middle. I don’t spin as much as I used to when I was a junior but I certainly don’t like to labour away at around the 80-90RPM mark. And I don’t really have a preference for steeper or easier climbs, as long as I can find a rhythm in my riding. It’s just about be being able to hold that tempo for as long as possible.
So how did you get involved with the Charter Mason Drapac Development Team?
Last year I was at the Tour of Tasmania and that was the first time I met the manager Mark [Neiwand]. Following that race I had a bit of correspondence with him and I was certainly impressed with the way the team was heading, from what he’d said to me. So the first team camp we had was back in December and all the Charter Mason boys and the Drapac team were there as well, up in Bright for a week.
That was really good, just to get to know the guys and see where everyone was at and how they were feeling. The team’s certainly built up a lot from what it was last year. We’ve got a larger roster and quite a bit more support with the team.We just got a deal with Giant for the rest of the year and they’re really supportive of the team and they certainly seem to be putting a lot behind us.
What’s the link between the Charter Mason Development Team and the Drapac team? Is there room to move to Drapac if you do well at Charter Mason?
When we first had discussions with the team they made it quite clear that although it’s a development team, there wasn’t a guaranteed place on Drapac waiting for us at the end of the year. We still need to prove ourselves and develop. But I’m certainly looking forward to the opportunities to get advice and assistance from the Drapac boys and spend time with the team, even if it’s just following them at the NRS [National Road Series] races or any other training camps we might have.
You’ve got the Baw Baw Classic coming up on April 14. How are you feeling for it?
It’s going to be an interesting race. We certainly showed at Mt. Buller that we’re a strong climbing team. Baw Baw can be a lot different because there’s a lot of opportunities out on the road to develop breaks and be in a strong position before you reach the bottom.
So we’re going to have to play it quite different to how we did at Buller, watching breaks, making sure we’re all in the right position, not wasting any energy before the main climb, if we can. But there are other strong teams — like African Wildlife Safaris and the Seight Test Team — which have strong climbers and some strong all-rounders as well.
(Click here to read a guest post about last year’s Baw Baw Classic, written by Matt’s teammate, Jason Spencer, who finished third in that race.)
We’ll certainly target the race and hope to do well there but we also have to start looking forward to the NRS. I think the first race for the team will be the Battle on the Border [from May 2 to May 5], followed straight away by the Tour of Toowoomba [May 9 to May 12].
Are there particular races or stages that you have already bookmarked for the rest of the year?
I’d really love to do well at Baw Baw again, to try and hold on to my lead in the State Series for long as possible. But as well, the Tour of Tawoomba — I hear that’s got a really decisive climb [at the end of stage 2] so I’d like to be able to go there with some good form and do something there that puts me in a good position. And once I get there I guess I’ll reassess and look further into the season.
So what’s the ultimate long-term goal for you?
Ideally I’d love to make a living out of cycling, but I guess I understand how hard it is, which is why I’ve got the university course to fall back on. I’d love to be able to try my luck overseas at some point, just to experience it really. And then from there, I guess, I’d just like to do whatever I can and be the best that I can.
Thanks very much to Matt Clark for taking the time to speak to me. I wish him all the very best at the Baw Baw Classic and into the future. If you’d like to follow Matt on Strava, click here, but be warned: checking out Matt’s climb times is likely to be quite demoralising.