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A year to learn, a year to burn: A conversation with Matt Lloyd

2010 Tour de France, stage 2, Matt Lloyd MELBOURNE, Australia (VN) — If there was one rider who could vouch for having an up and down year — with far more downs than ups — it would be Matthew Lloyd. At the start of the five-day Jayco…

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2010 Tour de France, stage 2, Matt Lloyd

MELBOURNE, Australia (VN) — If there was one rider who could vouch for having an up and down year — with far more downs than ups — it would be Matthew Lloyd.

At the start of the five-day Jayco Herald Sun Tour this month, his first race after six months in the cycling wilderness, the prodigious climber had done exactly one stage race all year — April’s Tour of the Basque Country — and did not finish.

His comeback race was supposed to have been a little earlier, at the Tour of Catalunya in late March. That was already a late start. But the previous December, just as he was getting back into the rhythm of training, he collided with a car and unsurprisingly came off second-best, breaking his shoulder and damaging three of his upper vertebrae.

Lloyd knew it be at least two months before he would get going again, but expected to be fit and able to defend his mountains jersey at the 2011 Giro d’Italia. But as two months passed into three, and three into four, his Omega Pharma-Lotto team, as much as they liked him, grew increasingly impatient.

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When it comes to matters of this nature, history has shown Belgian or French teams are far less tolerant of their foreign riders, and the at-times-eccentric Lloyd struggled with their attitude towards him, which he said was growing insidiously hostile. And so, after an unremarkable return at the Basque Country tour and four seasons and four months with the team, he was churned and spurned.

“We wish to inform you that the collaboration between Matthew Lloyd and the Omega Pharma-Lotto team is discontinued,” read the team statement to the media.

“Recent incidents during the first races disputed in 2011 by Matthew for our team made this collaboration impossible. Our team’s image cannot be connected to Matthew’s behavior any more, therefore the unanimous decision taken by the BCC board of directors. We follow a policy of zero tolerance of which we cannot divert.”

To avoid speculation about what this “behavior” entailed, Omega Pharma-Lotto added: “For the sake of clarity: this has nothing to do with the use of forbidden products. We also want to respect Matthew’s privacy.”

The irony was, however, that the team’s decision not to explicitly say what actually transpired created a veritable maelstrom of gossip; clarity — or Lloyd’s privacy — was nonexistent. More than ever, it damaged his reputation as a rider that to date has never tested positive for any substance – performance-enhancing or recreational – or, till his firing, never faced sanctioning as a result of any behavior deemed unfit according to UCI rules or the team’s code of ethics.

“Well, with any employment situation, whether it be within cycling or sports, or in general, it takes a lot of accountability on a lot of people’s behalf to make sure that both their actions and my actions were in check,” Lloyd tells VeloNews.

“But I think given the fact that I do live in a different country to where they’re based – and also the fact that I wasn’t in Europe for a long time (during my recovery) – made it difficult for both sides to make sure we could get a thorough communication continuing.”

Admits Lloyd, “The work that the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) put into plan and the training plans that we used to make sure that the shoulder and spine were working correctly did take a lot longer than I had anticipated.

“But, after two or three months over there and getting back on the bike and getting a program into action, after July and August had taken place, then it was good, because that sense of perspective and being able to look back and fine-tune things was definitely there.

“It’s like anything in life,” he says.

“Some things take longer, and some things are a bit of a rollercoaster. But thankfully, coming into the end of this year, it seems like everything is running perfectly.”

Does he hold any grudge — or grudges — towards his former employer, who prior to his departure, previously encountered “issues” with another Australian, by the name of Cadel Evans, who more or less said he was poorly treated? Has being harangued — and then hanged — left a sour taste in his mouth?

“I don’t really have any bad relations with them – at least for the time being. I still speak with the team; I have a lot of great friends in the team. There’s definitely no malice involved. So, from a business point of view, it’s always hard to let go of someone that you’ve known and respected for so long, but on the other hand, that’s the world of professional sport, I suppose, and you’ve got to take it as it comes and look forward to bigger and better things.”

When asked what was the key thing he took out of the nightmarish experience, Lloyd offers a rather wordy but thoughtful answer; certainly not atypical for the now 28-year-old Victorian.

“I think when you do place yourself in the environment of racing at highest level for years on end with the same group of people – and then, all of a sudden, your don’t have the goals that you had in place beforehand, and you don’t have the objectives coming constantly at you, you do have the time to get the mental space to look at the experiences you’ve had and then say to yourself that, ‘When you are in that environment, things are working perfectly.’

“So the main thing for me was to get back into that regular program and running that template of training and racing again. And once that started, you get to understand how amazing it is and what a blessing it is to be involved in the sport. So that’s been a huge factor for me.”

While he cites a truck-full of people who have helped him the past 12 months, I suggest that, ultimately, it must have been himself that did the hard yards; to now be in a position to have two or three teams who are interested in him and proffer a program that best meets his needs (which, according to this writer’s information, does not include the nascent Australian outfit, GreenEdge).

“Anyone can sit around all day, saying, ‘I’m doing as much as possible, talking to [various] people’ – or getting friends and family involved to make sure everything is in check. But at the end of the day, it really does come down to the person themselves.

“And fortunately, I was in that position to actually say, ‘I’ve got a real good opportunity here to get back into the game’ – and that was crucial. I think I really got stronger, mentally, from the experiences, and hopefully (will) come out next year with some bigger and better results.”

As to his future, Lloyd says “the next six to eight weeks” will be crucial in nailing what he hopes will be a contract to re-launch him back into the UCI WorldTour.

“It’s not only important for myself but the teams involved,” he adds, “to make sure the good program/base (is there) to make sure everything will work, and also that I’m prepared to hit up the bigger races next year, which is definitely my plan.”

The rider transfer period ends on 20 October – two days from now – so what does that mean for him?

“I think the main thing with that is, if a team takes someone from another team, then the issue is quite closed and they have to do it – mainly because it is a transfer, in essence. Nonetheless, if you do have guys who are unemployed – at least from a WorldTour perspective – then the ability to take guys on board after that date isn’t so much of an issue.

“So, it’s kind of a beneficial thing in a way, because a lot of people can use this time period just to make sure to get a good base of communication and to make sure everything’s in the correct place to make it all happen next year.”

Lloyd, for the first time I’ve heard him say it, says he not only wants to get back to his best as a climber, but to also explore the possibility of being a grand tour contender.

“Given the fact that the first portion of my career was really successful, and developing into a key climber was the initial objective in the way I wanted to take the racing out. Fortunately enough, I was just able to do that before this short break I’ve had … it certainly gives a lot of inspiration to get back to that level, and hopefully develop into a GC position later down the track, and also, try and win some more mountain stages of the biggest races … So there’s plenty of opportunities to do so and it’s pretty exciting.”

“GC position later down the track” — you do realize you might have to work on something called the individual time trial, don’t you, Lloydy, and go into the wind tunnel more than once in a blue moon?

His impish grin appears.

“Yeah definitely… I think I’ll have to start eating more, just to get a few more kilograms, because at the moment, being a midget, it’s great when you’re climbing, but to go fast on the flat is obviously hugely important. So there’s a number of points to work on there, but hopefully, we can come across that bridge and cross over it when we need to.”

Lloyd finished the Sun Tour in 27th place, nearly 12 minutes behind 22-year-old Nathan Haas of the Genesys Wealth Advisers team.

That he didn’t wreak as much havoc as he would’ve liked on the queen stage to Arthurs Seat or finish on the podium is less important than finishing the event in a solid state of mind – something that has been lacking over the past year, but now seems to be back for good.

Editor’s Note: Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Twitter: @anthony_tan