Features Interviews

Matt Holmes interview: the road from Wigan Pier

Alexander Smith speaks to Matt Holmes about his transition from domestic racing to the WorldTour and his ambitions for 2022

Matt Holmes sits at ‘his’ table in Velo Café Macclesfield, a few days before heading to Spain for his pre-season training camp. Above the table hangs his 2019 British Road Race Series champion jersey, next to a photo of him with his Manx International trophy, also from 2019.

“I don’t come here enough”, he says, jokingly. Although an accomplished athlete, Holmes is very grounded and brings no attention to the wall dedicated to his victories. 

The British Lotto Soudal rider, originally from Wigan, now lives in Macclesfield, a short ride away from the café. After making the step up to the WorldTour, from British UCI Continental team Madison Genesis, he made an instant impact. In his first race, the Tour Down Under, Holmes won stage 6, up Willunga Hill, ahead of Richie Porte. Porte, who took the overall lead with his second place, hadn’t lost up this stage for six years, until Holmes took the win. 

2020 Santos Tour Down Under Be Safe Be Seen Stage 6 Mclaren Vale to Willunga, Australia – Richie Porte and Matthew Holmes attack for the win. Photo: Zac Williams/SWpix.com

Reflecting on his first race at the highest level, Holmes laughs at all the “amateur moves” he made. 

“It was such a shock, it was January, I wasn’t fit. It was so fast and so chaotic, I was on a new bike and the brakes were changed around, European style. I couldn’t slow down properly!

I accidentally caused a crash because my brakes were the wrong way round! I went really wide round a corner, because I skidded, and two people went over the barriers

“I accidentally caused a crash because my brakes were the wrong way round! I went really wide round a corner, because I skidded, and two people went over the barriers. I don’t know who crashed because they never came back to complain!”

Besides accidentally causing a crash on his WorldTour debut, he also recollects a run-in he had with the then-World Champion, Mads Pedersen. 

“There was a lap to go [in one of the TDU stages] and I had a spare bottle, back when we were allowed to throw bottles. I saw some kids on the side of the road, so I thought “oh God, throw it!”, so I threw it straight at the World Champion, Mads Pedersen, straight in his ribs!”

After these incidents, it wasn’t a surprise that Holmes wasn’t feeling especially positive about WorldTour racing. 

“I was in a leadership role, to try and go for the GC, and I completely failed. I just couldn’t hold position when I needed to and things like that. I was glad I won [stage 6] because I was sort of down about it. I really needed to win because without that, I hadn’t really made a good first impression!

“After I won, I got a thousand messages, it was the first big thing I’d ever won. I replied to the lot of them, saying thanks. The only message I didn’t respond to said, ‘well done on your result, really good win to have, all the best, Chris.’

“I thought I need to find out who that is so I can send a proper message back. I then forgot about it, and two months later my girlfriend [pro-cyclist Josie Knight] was going through my messages and asked why I didn’t respond. She then looked at the common groups and we were both in the GB road team, and she worked out it was Chris Froome!”

So, throwing bottles at World Champions, and leaving four-time Tour de France winners on read, signalled a dramatic start to Holmes’ career in the WorldTour. 

Matt Holmes at the 2021 National Road Championships, Lincoln. Photo: Joe Cotterill

After racing at WorldTour level for two seasons, Holmes says that smaller domestic races he does with Lotto have a very different feeling to races at the highest level. 

“You get so used to the higher standard of bike handling. Then when you do go back to the smaller races like I used to do with Madison Genesis they feel so nervous and dangerous”. 

He describes being “slide-tackled mid roundabout” on one of these races, days before racing at Tro Bro Leon, where punctures and crashes meant he had “a crap four days”. 

Despite this, Holmes laughs and shows a picture of him sat in the team bus after Tro Bro Leon, elbows wrapped from crashing, with a lunch bag from soigneur, Patrice.

“He’s my biggest fan in the world, I think. He made the lunch bags for everybody after this race, and he wrote on everybody’s top results, so mine was just the Tour Down Under stage. 

“Philippe Gilbert was there, and his bag was just covered, unbelievable!” 

Following the Tour Down Under, his aims have been to win a stage in a Grand Tour from a breakaway. He has come close twice – coming third in stage 8 of the 2020 Giro d’Italia, and sixth in stage 14 of the Vuelta a España this season. 

In 2020, whilst chasing this aim, he got himself into trouble with the Giro peloton, when he inadvertently attacked the Maglia Rosa, who had stopped for a comfort break. 

I got so much abuse that day that I just wanted to pull out of the race. I completely cracked

“I was trying to get into the break, but it had gone, and the road had been blocked. But they were still on at me to go, so I attacked. I got so much abuse that day that I just wanted to pull out of the race. I completely cracked because I didn’t want to eat any gels or anything, so I almost missed the time cut.” 

Interestingly, Holmes says that trying to win a stage of a Grand Tour is, in some ways, easier than winning a round of the National Road Series in Britain.

“In a round of the National Series, there are around 10 riders who can win, and you just get marked and they chase you. It’s like a kid’s football match – you can’t go anywhere. Whereas in a Grand Tour, they are so happy and so keen to let a small group go, and then you’re racing against four people. So as mad as it sounds, there are so many more opportunities to win in the WorldTour than in the National Road Series”.

2019 HSBC UK National Road Series – Cycle 360 Manx International Stage 4 – Matt Holmes (Madison Genesis)celebrates winning the stage and overall GC. Photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com

Discussing the National Road Series, Holmes reiterates his belief that British riders at this level don’t get the opportunities they deserve.

“When I joined Raleigh, [the National Road Series] was really good. At that time there were really good British teams that were racing like Pro Continental teams. I ended up committed to the British scene, and there were only three opportunities to show ourselves, the Tour de Yorkshire, Tour of Britain, and Ride London. 

“It’s so unfair. If you’re Belgian, French, Spanish or from literally anywhere else, if you’re the best in the country then you have Pro Continental teams and you get to ride World Tour races. Whereas in the UK, we get nothing, and once you get to a certain age, it’s almost impossible.

“I think the National Road Series should be UCI races – then you would get a few foreign teams looking for points. It would be good for riders looking for teams, if they were UCI races people would look at them.”

Looking ahead, Holmes has his sights set on finally securing that elusive Grand Tour stage victory. 

“I’d like to get into the Tour de France team on merit if I have won a few races beforehand. It’s all about Caleb [Ewan], and rightly so, which only leaves one or two spaces for people with their own ambitions. I’d have to have a really good season to go, it’s obviously the dream so if I can go and try for stage wins that would be amazing.”

Alongside his Grand Tour aims, Holmes also has aspirations for some one-day races, particularly the final monument of the year, Il Lombardia. He made it a long way into this season’s edition, but he would like to go further. 

This year I’ll go back and say ‘look, I’m not going to get in the break, I’m here and I want to try to win it

“I tried to get into the break, so did an hour flat out, and then you can’t hang on. I almost did, I was there until late in the race, even having wasted a lot of energy. This year I’ll go back and say ‘look, I’m not going to get in the break, I’m here and I want to try to win it’”.

Holmes started his 2022 season at the Challenge Mallorca and looks set for a busy season at WorldTour level. 

Holmes at Lotto Soudal’s recent training camp. Photo: Joe Cotterill

He will be riding several stage races, as he heads to the UAE Tour up next, before Paris-Nice and the Tour of the Basque Country. He will also ride the Tour de Suisse in June.

Holmes will also tackle the Ardennes classics in April for the first time in his career. He takes on La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, races which he believes will really suit him and his style of riding. 

This is building towards the Giro d’Italia, where Holmes will have his first opportunity to secure that first Grand Tour victory this season. For the modest rider from Wigan, this would be a huge achievement and would be testament to the quality of riders that the British National Road Series produces. Holmes’ success shines a light on the series and could make the WorldTour sit up and take note. 

Featured photo: Joe Cotterill. Matt Holmes at the 2021 National Road Championships, Lincoln.