Mat Rogers interview – from rugby to riding
In 2014 we were introduced to Mat Rogers, a former rugby league and union international who stopped playing footy a few years earlier. He’s a mate of Robbie McEwen and the former pro cyclist suggested we have a chat about Rogers’ conversion to cycling.
The story featured in RIDE #65: ‘Mat Rogers – league, union, happiness’, published in September 2014.
Comments from the interview have been referenced subsequently, including a few gems…
“There’s something about being shoulder-to-shoulder with someone and communicating as opposed to being face-to-face. I honestly think people communicate better.”
“A stereotype is a stereotype, not everybody fits ‘The Mould’.”
And, “Commonsense is not all that common.”
Rogers finished the 70.3 Ironman yesterday in Port Macquarie – finishing 22nd in his age group. Elsewhere many of his former peers were kicking, tackling, and throwing the footy about on fields around the nation.
In recent discussions with retiring cyclists, several aspects of the Rogers’ interview have been referenced and so the recording was uploaded to Soundcloud and the transcript of the chat pulled out of the archives.
It’s a fairly long read and the quality of the recording isn’t great; it was a relatively impromptu chat between RIDE‘s publisher and Rogers as he drove to an appointment a few years ago…
Still, the feedback on the original article is strong and we have decided to publish the full interview again. Treat it like a podcast and have a listen when you have 25 minutes to spare or read the full transcript below…
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Mat Rogers on his conversion to cycling
(12 August 2014)
RIDE: Thanks for taking the time to have a chat.
Mat Rogers: “Yeah, no worries.”
Robbie speaks highly of you. I understand you used to be neighbours is that right?
“Yeah, we were for many years and then I lived in his house for a while and then I moved. But yeah, we’re good mates. We do a bit together.”
I’m born in 1970 which means I grew up watching your father play for Cronulla but then I found the bike and I don’t know much about your career… so I’m going to jump around a little bit with topic but I thought I’d start things off with that introduction.
“Yeah, that’s cool.”
It’s quite fun to talk to athletes from other sports and just find out why they came to cycling. I wonder if you could give me a little outline of how you’ve come to the bike and what it is that you like about it.
“I’ve always liked cycling, even before it was sort of ‘in’ or cool, so to speak.
“I was sponsored by a company called Bikes R Us in Sydney years ago. They gave me a road bike to ride; an Avanti it was, I remember it. And mate, it was just really cool.
“I lived in Cronulla and I used to ride out to Kurnell just on my own, just a 30 kilometre ride from where I lived. It wasn’t much of a ride but I really dug it, eh? I got to meet a couple of guys from the local bike shop and they took me out and I’d just go riding on my own and just really enjoyed it for whatever reason.
“Then I left rugby league, that was when I was playing for Cronulla, and I went to rugby union. I didn’t ride for a while.
“I came back to the Gold Coast titans which was five years later and the trainer there made everybody go and get a bike to use as cross-training and I got right back into it.
“I rode a fair bit when I came back because I had a bad knee coming back to rugby league so I couldn’t run quite as much as the average player and I spent a fair bit of time on the bike. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I just loved the fact that there was no real impact and you could really still punish yourself on the bike – you could really get a good workout and, as opposed to running up and down a field, it just seemed a bit more enjoyable, a bit more to see, and not as heavy on the body. So I got bit addicted to it, to be honest.
“Then I retired from sport and I stopped riding my bike. I didn’t do anything for 18 months. But I had this neighbour of mine – he lived on the other side [of my house] than Robbie McEwen… who wasn’t there at the time, he was over in Belgium – and he was into me: ‘Come on mate, you’ve got to come riding!’ And he only just started and he was a sort of bigger guy and I’d tell him, ‘Nah, I’ll go later… you’ll never worry me, I’ll not have to worry about keeping up…’
“And in my mind I thought that if I started up riding again in six months’ time I’d still be right to keep up. I was fit – or I looked fit – and he was a bit bigger. Anyway, he took me for my first [comeback] ride and he absolutely punished me!
“He’s actually my hairdresser and I’ve just been getting my hair cut before speaking to you and we were just talking about it… this was what happened four years ago, and everyone still laughs about it.
“We were in a bit of a bunch – and I was probably the only ‘athlete’ in the bunch in terms of ever having been at a professional level – and we were going out to Currumbin Valley on this hill called ‘Ducats’, it’s about a two kilometre climb and it’s not anything. We’re going there again tomorrow and it’s a ‘nothing’ ride really but [on the day of my comeback] they had to come back and get me… two or three times! They had to get me up the hill and over and it and mate, I literally put the bike away for four or five months.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to go and run, I’ve got to do something to get fit enough to get back on the bike and go back out with these guys… and show them I can keep up with them.’
“It literally took me about six months to get back to riding with them and then it took me another three months before I could stay with them.
“We’d go riding and we’d have a little Friday session, a bit of a ‘smash-fest’ – that’s what they called it: it’s just every man for himself just going hard, like a race. Basically, if you don’t keep up with them, you don’t get to go and have a coffee; you’re at home on your own. So they’d ring me all the time and go, ‘Where are you?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m having a coffee… you left me out in the bush again.’
“It was always a bit of fun. They’re a really good bunch of guys just out there having a crack.
“So I got back into it and started doing some triathlons and I just fell in love with riding. I just love the solitude of it. I love the fact that I can just jump on my bike and go riding for five hours and just enjoy the peace and quiet.”
That’s a good explanation. When you had your 18 months of idleness did you hit the piss [drink booze]…
“Yeah. Everything mate. I did not put a pair of shoes on. Unless I was going out for dinner, I didn’t put a pair of shoes on.
“I did a bit of travelling with my wife. But I didn’t put a pair of shoes on to do any sort of exercise.
“Funnily enough I lost weight. I didn’t put weight on because that’s just my make-up. If I train, I actually put weight on because I eat more. I must have some sort of fast metabolism or something. When I stopped playing – and I played at about 88kg – I lost weight and went down to about 82. Then, after 18 months, I sort of went back up to 85 kilos and I thought, ‘Oh this is… maybe I should do something.’ So I got started and trained a little bit.
“Yeah, I was on the piss… well, not really ‘on the piss’, but just not really doing anything. I was just enjoying life.
“It’s funny because when I was retired I was drinking a bit just because I could, you know: have a glass of wine with dinner. I never used to do that and I said to this taxi driver on the way to the Indy the year that I retired, I said: ‘I feel like I’m…’
And he quickly said, ‘Oh, I’ve just retired and now worked again.’
I said, ‘Why do you work again?’
He said, ‘Oh, because I drank too much and I had to come back to work.’
“And I got to the Indy and Gordon Tallis was there, he’s a footballer – he’s been the Australian captain and stuff – he’s a great fella, a good mate of mine, and he’d been retired. I said to him, ‘Mate, I feel like I’m turning into an alcoholic.’
And he goes: ‘Mate, 18 months. It’ll take you 18 months and trust me, you’ll get it all out of your system and then you’ll get focussed again and start doing stuff.’ And he was about spot-on because it was about 18 months later that I started moving again and doing a bit.”
It’s an interesting old culture, rugby league isn’t it? I was born in Coffs and I grew up watching it but then I faded away from it because it just seemed to be… a lot of ‘boofheads’ involved but boofheads and cycling are coming together aren’t they?
“Well there’s certainly a culture in every sport that I think has stereotypes that go with it. And I’ve hung out with a few cyclists and one thing you would know very well is that they aren’t very different to rugby league players, I can assure you. Actually, to be honest, they’re probably worse: they’re mad!
“But in terms of the stereotype of the footballer, it’s starting to change a little bit and I think the culture of it is perceived to be this beer-drinking, womanising… that’s sort of the stereotype of it but I sort of laugh about it because people who don’t know me and then find out that I was a rugby league player – they look at me funny and sort of say, ‘Well, you don’t fit that stereotype…’
“But a stereotype is a stereotype, not everybody fits ‘The Mould’.
“Things evolve. Things change.
“But there are definitely people from every sport now enjoying what cycling can do. I’ve got a few mates who are really keen to get on the bike. I had one of my mates ring me the other day, ‘Let’s get together – I want to start riding!’ He’s just retired from playing and he’s an ex-State of Origin player.
“It’s just a good way to keep fit.
“I can’t believe that it’s taken so long to grab on in this country considering how big it is in other places.”
It’s interesting that you say that. And what I said about ‘boofheads’ wasn’t meant as an insult, I was just trying to get to the reference point of what the perception of the culture is…
“There are a lot of footballers who are now riding bikes. I joke about when I first starting riding that I looked like Magilla Gorilla – a big muscle-bound bloke all over a bike. It’s not that I was huge but I know what you mean.”
It’s also, for example, in western Sydney it can be treacherous to ride a bike and that is real rugby league heartland. I reckon that all we’d need to do is let a few of those guys who are driving at bike riders as though it’s sport know that rugby league players really have an affinity to cycling and we’d see a big change in mentality wouldn’t we?
“Yeah, we would. And the latest safety campaign we shot up here on the Gold Coast was James Courtney, Tim Slade – both V8 Supercar drivers, Mick Doohan – a motorbike racer, myself – a rugby league player, and Robbie McEwen. And Robbie was in the background.
“Most motorists hate cyclists. But the motorists who hate cyclists are generally the ones who are driving the V8s and they want to yahoo and carry on. Well, some of the blokes they’re cheering on the weekend are the guys who are on the bike during the week.
“I understand that you get dingbats in every field, guys who want to be an idiot and that’s no different in rugby league or cycling or car racing or whatever – there’s good and bad in every group. It’s scary though when you’re on the bike and somebody nearly hits you… mate, that’s not cool.
“I’ve been clipped a couple of times and I just think, that’s unnecessary.
“Some people carry on about it and they think it’s an ‘us-versus-them’ but I don’t want to be against anyone who’s in a car – I’m on a friggin’ bike! It’s not about us and them, it’s just about sharing the road and being respectful. Unfortunately there are just some out there who aren’t respectful, that they own the road and they don’t use commonsense sometimes.
“It’s the old saying: ‘Commonsense is not all that common’.”
As you say, it’s about general respect of a fellow human being and I think that there is more of that now and it’s great to see people from all walks of life finding the joy in different things. For example, I’ve just discovered AFL and I’m totally hooked by it.
“I love it mate, it’s a great game.”
Tell me about how the perception in the rugby world is of cycling. Let’s go to union now… I spoke to Ben Darwin years ago and he had discovered the bike. And he was a man-mountain. I wondered how he could pedal without breaking the bike. Do you think there’s a lot of uptake of cycling in that world as well?
“Oh yeah, there’s definitely a crossover. I would say there would be more crossover between union and cycling – parallels between those two sports than league and cycling.
“Cycling is a bit more of an upmarket sport. Although cycling is an expensive sport, it’s generally not your western suburbs blue-collar sport.
“You’ve got the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia… and you can go riding in some of the most beautiful places in the world. And rugby union definitely fits that mould: it’s more of a corporate game than a blue-collar game.
“Although there are some massive humans who play that game, and you mightn’t see too many of them riding a bike, but there are some who really love it. But I didn’t know Ben [Darwin] was into it; I was literally speaking to him the other day and he did an Ironman, I think.
“Jonathan Brown is a good mate of mine who plays AFL and he used to come down and ride with us a bit.
“[Cycling] is just a great sport. Anybody can do it. That’s the good thing about it: anyone can ride a bike – whether you’re good or bad is irrelevant, but anyone can do it. But in soccer there’s a huge gap. Anybody can do it but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be great but there’s a reason why it’s such a huge sport, like cycling.
“What kid doesn’t like riding a bike?”
In your world, I’m curious, how different would life be if you were bought up like Ewan McEwen and you were always surrounded by bikes versus your life when you were bought up by Steve Rogers. What would have happened if you’d discovered the bike before rugby?
“I’d probably be a pro bike rider. I’ve always been pretty driven. I would have loved to have done it. I would never have been a climber though. Ha! Oh… my legs are too short.
“Mate, I love it.
“I love riding and if I’d discovered it with the same passion that I had for rugby league at a young age, and I’d ridden down that path – or even just shown that path – I probably would have taken it.
“My son, he’s 18 and all he’s ever seen is me play footy. About six years ago I said to him, ‘Mate, you should go and play AFL.’ The way rugby league is going, it’s got to be about these man-mountains – this influx of Polynesians who are just dominating the game – they are just all over these little white kids. My son is bigger than me now so he’s going to be bigger than I was but it’s a tough gig so I tried to get him to go and have a kick but he wouldn’t do it.
“Now I say to him again, ‘You should have had a kick a few years ago…’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
What sport is he going to do?
“Oh, he plays rugby league and he’s pretty good so he might make it, he might not. If he’s good enough, he’ll make it because he’ll have people looking at him but if he’s not he’ll probably just work like everyone else.
“But it’s too late to get into cycling. He’s too big.
“I would have definitely had a crack at it. I would have liked to have grown up around it but it wasn’t my environment as a kid.
“Ewan is a great little athlete.
“The thing I love about it too is that you can really enjoy it and you don’t have to be a tremendously coordinated person to be a great cyclist. I’ve seen Robbie play golf mate! And he’s a gun cyclist. As a golfer he makes a fantastic cyclist.
“But you know what I mean, you don’t need one particular trait to be a good bike rider. Unlike if you want to be a basketball player or a rugby league player… you need to have a great amount of hand/eye coordination and a physical gift – the whole thing needs to come together whereas on a bike, if you’re prepared to work and put the time in, if you’ve got half an engine inside you, you can develop it.
“It’s a different sport that encompasses everyone as opposed to what I used to do.
“But my younger kids now – who are six and eight – all they’ve seen me do is ride a bike and do triathlon. All my daughter wants to do now is do a triathlon with me. She did her first one a couple of months ago and she came down to Port Macquarie Ironman and she was crying at the start of my race because she was worried about me… but she wanted to do it with me. It was great. I love that you can incorporate your family more into this sport than my original sports.
“Ewan and Robbie can go for a ride together.”
I’ve got a couple of young boys as well and my four-year-old took his first pedal strokes on Sunday so it was a pretty exciting time. The bike brings you together, doesn’t it?
“It does! As a family, there’s a connection. We take the dog for a run and the kids ride. Or I’m riding with the dog on a leash and they’re there with me. It’s just a fun thing to do together.
“There’s something about being shoulder-to-shoulder with someone and communicating as opposed to being face-to-face. I honestly think people communicate better. There’s got to be a study done on it.
“They communicate better when they’re shoulder-to-shoulder because no one is trying to dominate the conversation. I chat with my kids so much more when we’re walking or riding. I just feel like we’re more on the same level. There’s just something about it.”
Mate, I’ve spoken about cycling every day for about 25 years and no one has ever raised that point and I think it’s absolutely crucial what you’ve just said about shoulder-to-shoulder. That’s a great analogy.
“I think if they did some studies on it, they would find that they communicate more shoulder-to-shoulder. I’m sure of it. They’re not intimidated by someone looking at them.
“When we go out riding, some of the conversations I have with blokes that I barely even know are amazing!
“I think that blokes in a cycling bunch would be the least depressed of any group of men because they get stuff off their chest, they talk, and they don’t feel like they’re getting looked down on or judged because there’s no one looking at them going, ‘Oh you should have…’
“Call it my crazy way of lookin’ at things but that’s how I see it.”
I think there’s a lot of value in that Mat. I really take on board what you’re saying.
I also wanted to get you to explain your charity because I know it’s a big deal in your world. Can you tell me what it’s all about?
“Yeah, absolutely. My eight-year-old son Max is autistic. Well, he was diagnosed with autism when he was two and we went through a bit of a journey with him. What does this all mean? And at the end of the day we had no idea. The most we knew was probably like the average person, thinking he was Rainman.
“I didn’t know what to think. My wife was at a loss, thinking she failed as a mum and all that sort of stuff.
“We were pretty rattled and fortunately we stumbled across a school on the Gold Coast called ‘Little Souls Taking Big Steps’. They had an early intervention program and it was really intense. The children go into the program, a one-on-one arrangement where they interact with people with developing kids in the mainstream in a kindergarten environment but during the day they do four hours of one-on-one therapy, five days a week. It’s full-on.
“And to see what he did, little Max… he went through that for three years: five days a week, four hours a day one-on-one therapy, eyeball to eyeball, leaning how to interact and cope and deal with situations and learn stuff.
“It changed the way he interacted. It changed the way he learnt. It changed the way he just became one of us, a member of our family again as opposed to being that detached member of the family. He had been like a stranger in our own home until we did this stuff. But it cost $50,000 per year. And we just felt we needed to make that funding available to more people so we started our charity and raised funds for kids to go into similar type programs that are endorsed by the states’ governing bodies on autism – for kids on the spectrum.
“We started that five years ago and we’ve raised well over a million dollars now and have been able to help lots of kids. We’ve refurbished schools and done what we can.
“Sometimes things that, through no fault of anyone…
“My heart just goes out to the people who have an autistic child who is unable to get the help that exists.
“We saw the change that Max went through but I can’t help but imagine if you had a kid and heard, ‘Yeah, you can have some help – here it is…’ and then you rock up only to be told, ‘Nah, sorry. You can’t have it now because it costs too much money. And you’ve got to suffer.’ And that’s basically what happens in Australia. In other countries they do a bit more but we’re trying to change that. We’ve got to get in front of the prime minister and tell him that the vote will change, unfortunately. And right now it’s not that easy.
“We just thought, ‘You know what, rather than whinge about it we’ll see what we can do to maybe help people.’ So we thought we’d put our ‘celebrity powers’ to good rather than self benefit and we’d use it to help others. We just sort of do that and it’s been great.
“We’ve had some great supporters over the years. Audi has given us cars. Giant has given us bikes. And all in the name of raising funds to help people. We don’t get paid to run the charity. We do it off our own bat and every dollar that we raise goes directly into helping a family that desperately needs it. We’re pretty passionate about that. It’s cool.
“It’s called 4ASDkids.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold