Matthew Holmes is just clearing out his garage for a turbo session when he picks up the phone.
That is the life of a British WorldTour cyclist in January 2021, currently unable to join up with his Lotto-Soudal team-mates at their training camp in Spain, instead having the time to reflect on his first year in the WorldTour as well as what the next could bring.
With the performances of Tao Geoghegan Hart and Hugh Carthy towards the end of 2020, it’s easy to forget that before the pandemic, before the season break, Matthew Holmes was the first among the next generation of British WorldTour riders to get the year off to a winning start at the Tour Down Under, the surprise vanquisher of Richie Porte up his preferred Willunga Hill.
“Obviously I’m glad it happened, I don’t really think about it ever,” Holmes says of the day he announced himself to the wider cycling world. “It just sort of feels normal now, I suppose, being in the WorldTour. And that [win] definitely helped to make it feel more normal, that it wasn’t impossible. I get reminded by lots of people about it.
“It sort of set me up for the year and made it a lot more stress-free. Of course, I was still trying to win stuff but it was nice to have already done more than they would have expected in my first year.”
This type of understatement, not getting carried away with being part of the WorldTour™ is who Holmes is. This mild-mannered, quietly determined demeanour is characteristic of the new British generation that is rising to the top. Like contemporaries Hugh Carthy and James Knox, there is a humility and earthliness to them that for the acerbic Wiggins and Thomas has long evaporated, as necessitates the ascension to Tour de France glory and all that comes with it. For now at least, Holmes and his peers can be more candid and the top tier of cycling is still too shiny a thing to feel fatigued by.
“I suppose in some ways it was the same, [the WorldTour] was just bike racing. I’ve done a lot of Tours of Britain and Tours de Yorkshire so I know what it’s like in the WorldTour,” Holmes says. “It’s definitely a lot nicer riding for a WorldTour team than a Continental team because you get more respect and you feel like you’re allowed to race it more, you don’t get bullied in the pack. So that was a big difference. Other than that it’s much the same, obviously, it’s a lot quicker but in a way that suits me, it doesn’t mean it’s that much harder just that everything is moving a lot quicker.”
At the time of his win in Australia, the new Lotto-Soudal man said the pace of the top-level wasn’t the problem, he could turn the pedals just as fast as his rivals, but rather it was acclimatising to the racecraft which he thought might hold him back.
“At the start of the year I found it really difficult to adapt,” Holmes says. “I’d just got on a brand new bike and changed everything, including which way around my brakes were. I think I’d ridden it for maybe a month or two but I was still really struggling with that.
“But I didn’t really make the connection and I thought I was just crap and couldn’t handle it. The day [in the Tour Down Under] into the first hilltop day that Porte won was just a really fast descent where you didn’t have to brake at all – but you really wanted to, it was just terrifying. And there I was, supposed to be trying to get to the front and I think I was dead last at the bottom of the climb. That had me questioning whether I could do it or not. I really wasn’t sure if it was for me and then two days later I was winning. It was a bit of a turnaround.”
Turnaround is an appropriate word, as before he signed for the Belgian squad in 2019, nearing his 26th birthday, he thought his chance to reach the WorldTour had already passed him by.
“I had given up really on ever making it to the WorldTour,” Holmes admits. “When I was coming through juniors and U23 I was certain I was good enough to do it but you get so many setbacks and just feel like it’s never going to happen. I’d sort of resigned myself to that fact.
“I suppose the main reason it did happen was the team [Madison Genesis] ending because that was the real kick up the backside: ‘either sort yourself or you have to get a normal job’. In a way, it worked in my favour.”
It hasn’t taken him long to adapt either, and with the benefit of hindsight thinks it’s a good thing he took a while to reach the top level, even during a time where youth is the fragrance everyone in the peloton wants to be wearing.
“It’s sort of strange, I don’t feel…nervous or anything, I just feel like I’ve earned it and I’m old enough. I can go straight in and be competitive whereas if I’d gone in at 21 I don’t know if I could have handled it really, it would have been too hard and too much. I don’t know how I’d have taken it.”
Any pressure he feels doesn’t come from the team, but from himself wanting to prove he’s earned a seat at the table. In contrast, Holmes is in some ways keen to take the WorldTour off its pedestal, not in an arrogant way, but by staying true to what got him there, doing his own training and then turning up to races. Even his debut Grand Tour appearance at the Giro d’Italia in October is brought down a peg or two.
“Obviously [the Giro] was a strange one this year and I’m not sure how it compares to the Tour de France, I’d assume that’s harder still,” Holmes estimates. “It went alright, you get into it. You ride your bike every day at home so it’s just like three really hard weeks. Nothing superhuman like it seems on the telly.”
In Italy, he watched on as compatriot Tao Geoghegan Hart won the maglia rosa, before Hugh Carthy, who lives only 30 minutes up the road in Preston from Holmes’ native Wigan, made the podium at the Vuelta a España.
“I think riding my first Grand Tour showed me just how difficult it is [to win] but also the people who are winning it are the people I’ve grown up with,” Holmes says of the inspiration he can take from watching fellow Brits make their Grand Tour breakthroughs. “They’re showing that it’s doable…I’m not sure how you get there but it does give me the motivation to do it because…I’m not saying I can climb as well as any of them but maybe it’s just time in the WorldTour that makes the difference.
“It definitely does make you think ‘cor, if he can do it then why can’t I get on the podium’.”
While Holmes says his Tour Down Under win is consigned to a recess of his brain to savour at a later date, his near-miss at the Giro when he found himself in the stage eight breakaway from which Alex Dowsett won clearly still lingers in his memory.
“I don’t formally set any goals [for the season ahead] but I suppose I’d like to win a stage at a Grand Tour because I got close to it. I was annoyed, I felt I was probably the strongest there but threw it away, in a way, by not chasing Dowsett, and then messed up the sprint for second as well. I know it’s doable now and just need to get it right next time because I’ve been close. Apart from that, I’m still trying to figure out what races I like.”
What he does know is what he’d like to achieve by the time he’s done. Holmes wants to ride all three Grand Tours and win stages at each. Maybe also a national title, as he’s not managed that just yet, and if there’s time to squeeze in a trip to the Olympics, that’d be nice too. “I want to experience as much as I can, as I’ve come in late”.
But crucially, he’s not out on Wigan roads riding like a madman gripped by the need to win a Tour stage, refusing to rest until it happens. Instead, Holmes provides a more romantic vision of cycling, maybe one more similar to you or I reaching the top of an insignificant hill on a quick 30km spin, imagining it to be Ventoux.
“Definitely not, I don’t think like that, I just enjoy training. I suppose I do daydream a bit and then find myself riding really hard,” he laughs. “I try to just be as normal as possible, I’m not crazy, living on my own eating salad, going mad. I just try to live a normal life and do as much normal stuff as possible and I think that’s just good, and good for performance.”
“It’s not a normal life is it,” Holmes corrects himself. “Training and sitting around all day, going for a walk, doing some DIY, doing whatever you want.
“I’ve found since moving out of my parents’ house, that when you have loads of stuff to do it’s just much better, because otherwise I just sit there and think ‘oh god, my legs are looking a bit bad, oh…what am I doing’. It’s not good to have nothing to do.”
There we have it, folks, the pros sit around worrying about how rubbish their legs are, just like the rest of us.