This feature from RIDE #65 comes up in conversation too often not to be prompted to share it online. It features the classic line: “There’s something about being shoulder-to-shoulder with someone and communicating as opposed to being face-to-face.” That’s one of Mat Rogers’ observations about cycling. And with the football season itching to get started – in all codes – we thought it time to put this story out to a wider, online audience. It’s while cycling that people often tend to communicate better because of the predicament they find themselves in. But going to a football match, or watching it in any manner, with mates is another way people end up talking “shoulder-to-shoulder”.
May the best team win but may we all be part of that larger team called “community”.
The bike can change people. It can unite. It can offer relief. It can be used as a vehicle for more than transport alone. A former professional footballer has discovered cycling and he simply can’t get enough of it. He is using it as therapy and exercise. He’s active long after his playing days and enjoying the experience and all it has to offer.
By Rob Arnold
“I’ve always liked cycling, even before it was sort of ‘in’ or cool, so to speak.” Mat Rogers has a new love. His original sporting passion was football but now it’s riding. The bike offers him freedom, friendship, exercise and exhilaration. Why does he ride? Because he likes it. Quite simple really, but there’s more to it. He’s got a long list of reasons. “I love that you can incorporate your family more into this sport than my original sports.”
Cycling is a lot of things to many people. It offers release from the stress of everyday life and allows an opportunity to reflect while raising the heart rate. And people come to the sport from all walks of life and discover its joys because of a variety of circumstances. Although Rogers had ridden on and off throughout his life, it was ultimately a challenge from his hairdresser that changed his sporting preferences. Proud as he is of his days as a professional rugby league and rugby union player, the bike rather than the ball now offers him his sporting solace.
His playing days are behind him and now it’s all about riding for Rogers. Cycling provides a social network near his Gold Coast home. It brings him happiness. And it has become his infatuation. “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 been shown that path – I probably would have taken it.”
Whether or not Rogers would have turned cycling into a job is something he’ll never know. He was born into football and raised on football. His father played. And his eldest son hopes to keep that tradition alive, but sporting diversity is alive in the modern world. Professional athletes – past and present – realise the benefits of cross-training. They mix up their routines, experiment with a range of exercises, build their physical conditioning with different activities and then go about earning their wage with their original passion.
Mat Rogers’ conversion to cycling is a work in progress. At the start it was a bit of a lark; now it’s an enormous part of his life. Why? “I just fell in love with riding,” he declared. “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.”
Don’t be fooled though: he’s not just out there pedalling along at an idle pace, looking at the scenery. The competitive streak hasn’t subsided just because Rogers is no longer paid to play a game. He takes up the story of his conversion…
“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,” he said of his rediscovery of cycling, while still playing rugby league for the Cronulla Sharks, carrying on the tradition his father started. “It wasn’t much of a ride but I really dug it. I got to meet a couple of guys from the local bike shop and they took me out and I’d also go riding on my own and just really enjoyed it for whatever reason.
“Then I left rugby league and I went to rugby union.” He admits that the change of codes put a temporary end to his cycling habits. “I didn’t ride for a while.” But he played. He got paid. He scored tries. He kicked goals.
He was a key member of the NSW team and a proud member of the formidable Wallabies from 2002 until 2006. But injuries took their toll. And, of course, the death of his father, Steve, early in Mat’s final year as a rugby player had a major impact on the person he became.
Mat Rogers realised he could use his reputation to raise awareness for certain causes. He spoke openly about the devasting effects of depression, an illness that Steve Rogers battled with throughout the later years of his life.
Cycling would eventually become part of a mechanism Mat used to clear his mind and invigorate him but before it came to that, there was more football to play. After a five- year dalliance with rugby, he moved away from Sydney and returned to rugby league. He signed on with the Gold Coast Titans in the team’s inaugural year in the NRL and it was because of this that he rediscovered cycling once again.
“The trainer made everybody get a bike to use as cross-training and I got right back into it,” Rogers explained.
“I rode a fair bit when I came back [to league] because I had a bad knee. 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. I loved the fact that there was no real impact and I could really still punish myself. I could really get a good workout and, as opposed to running up and down a field, it seemed a bit more enjoyable, a bit more to see, and not as heavy on the body. I got bit addicted to it, to be honest.”
It helped that his neighbour for several months of the year was Robbie McEwen. The two became friends but it wasn’t the pro cyclist who turned the pro footballer into a cycling fanatic. Another recent convert to the joys of riding convinced Rogers to step things up a notch… but only once he had retired and gotten a few things out of his system.
“I retired from sport. I stopped riding my bike. I didn’t do anything for 18 months. But this neighbour of mine – he lived on the other side of my house than Robbie – and he was into me: ‘Come on mate, you’ve got to come riding!’ He was actually my hairdresser and he’d only just started and he was a sort of bigger guy. I’d tell him, ‘Nah, I’ll go later… you’ll never worry me, I’ll keep up…’
“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 absolutely punished me! That’s what happened four years ago, and everyone still laughs about it.
“We were in a bunch – and I was probably the only ‘athlete’ in terms of ever having played as a professional – and we were going out to Currumbin Valley on a hill called ‘Ducats’, it’s about a two kilometre climb… it’s a ‘nothing’ ride really but on that day they had to come back and get me two or three times! They had to get me up and over the hill. I literally put the bike away for four or five months.”
Forget perceived fitness, the bike makes an honest man out of anyone. Confidence or history don’t factor into it; if you’re not good, there’s no hiding it. Rogers baulked but he didn’t concede. He used it as motivation.
“I was like, ‘I’ve got to 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 took me about six months to get back to riding with them again – and then it took me another three months before I could stay with them. It was always fun. They’re a really good bunch of guys just out there having a crack.”
‘The Great Equaliser’ – it’s a common phrase used for cycling. Never mind your background, your heritage, your upbringing, your weight, your stamina, your ability to kick a ball, your years of doing something else. Ride a bike with a group of friends and you soon discover how you stack up against them. The competitive spirit is alive in bunch rides around the world but there’s much more to it than beating someone to the top of a hill. It’s also therapy.
“The thing I love about it too,” says Rogers about riding, “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.”
He laughs at the thought of McEwen hitting a golf ball. The retired pro athletes enjoy mocking one another but it’s harmless fun, part of the repartee of the bunch ride.
“You know what I mean,” Rogers says once the mental image of McEwen’s golfing ‘prowess’ fades. “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 player, you need to have a great amount of hand-eye coordination and a physical gift – the whole thing needs to come together. 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.”
There aren’t a lot of people who would opt to tackle Gorden Tallis. That’s not fun at all. It might prove bravado or demonstrate strength but it’s not something that brings blokes together to talk about their inner fears. Emotional baggage can get stored up and while other sports offer some kind of release, Mat Rogers believes cycling provides more than the benefits of physical conditioning.
The great equaliser also offers the right arrangement for people to talk openly and honestly with one another. And Rogers offered a bit of insight that, despite years of talking about cycling with many people, I’ve never been told before. “There’s something about being shoulder-to-shoulder with someone and communicating as opposed to being face-to-face,” he says. “I honestly think people communicate better.”
Bingo! It’s a key observation. And of course it’s not just on a bike that this sort of discussion takes place. Consider the conversations of football fans around the country. In grandstands everywhere you see people staring at a field of animate players. They cheer. They curse. They scream at umpires. They vent at referees. And they talk to each other without looking anyone in the eye.
Rogers reckons they “should do a study on it”. Surely there’s someone out there already doing a thesis on the topic. It makes sense.
“People communicate better when they’re shoulder-to-shoulder,” continues Rogers, “because no one is trying to dominate the conversation. I chat with my kids 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.”
The same applies to blokes in the bunch. It makes ‘the training ride’ a bit like group therapy. “If they did some studies on it, they would find that they communicate more. They’re not intimidated by someone looking at them.
“When we go out riding,” says Rogers of his Gold Coast posse,” 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.”
He might have been a rugby player but Mat Rogers has become much more than that. He is a cyclist, a triathlete, and an ambassador for change. He’s gone from one sport to another and succeeded as a professional in both but now he is riding his bike for pleasure, for sport, for therapy, for fun. He isn’t playing anymore but he’s active and happy. More than that, he’s also trying to find a solution to some of the things that he and his wife, Chloe, have been exposed to.
“My eight-year-old son Max is autistic,” he explains in response to my query about his charity called ‘4ASDkids’. “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, but also interact with teachers and kids in a mainstream kindergarten environment. But they do four hours of one-on-one therapy, five days a week. It’s full-on.
“Little Max went through that for three years: five days a week, four hours a day – eyeball to eyeball, learning how to interact and cope, deal with situations and learn. It changed the way he interacted. It changed the way he learnt. He 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.
“We just felt we needed to make that funding available to more people so we started our charity, raising funds for kids to go into similar programs that are endorsed by the states’ governing bodies on autism – for kids on the spectrum.”
Mat and Chloe created 4ASDkids.com. Both now ride and they often using cycling in fundraising activities. “We started that five years ago and we’ve raised over a million dollars and have been able to help lots of kids.
“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. And you’ve got to suffer.’ And that’s basically what happens in Australia but we’re trying to change that.
“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 don’t get paid to run the charity. We do it off our own bat and every dollar 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.”
Mat Rogers associates with a host of other pro athletes who are now using the bike for fitness, fun and socialising. More than that, however, these guys are also using their reputations to spread the message about safety and the obvious need for respect when it comes to sharing one of the most public of spaces: roads.
Rogers is happy in his Gold Coast setting and he’s happy that he really discovered cycling again now that he lives in a place where there are roads that aren’t as treacherous as in Sydney. His original hometown is a particularly hostile city when it comes to road use. He and McEwen both told me that they wouldn’t know how they’d cope riding regularly in a place where motorists are so angry about cyclists.
Again, rather than just lament the circumstance, Rogers is active in trying to raise awareness about the plight of his new community. He recognises that much of the vitriol of the motorist-vs-cyclist situation comes from a demographic that looks up to footballers and motorsport. And he joined forces with a number of prominent athletes to send a message about safe road use. “The latest campaign we shot on the Gold Coast involved James Courtney, Tim Slade – both V8 Supercar drivers, Mick Doohan – a motorbike racer, myself – a rugby league player, and Robbie McEwen,” said Rogers. “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. 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!” He understands who the winner of a confrontation is going to be if someone opts to use a vehicle as a weapon. And he’s investing energy going in to bat for what would be the losing side.
“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, who think that they own the road and they don’t use common sense sometimes. It’s the old saying: ‘Common sense is not all that common’.”
Cycling has a lot to offer those who do it, no matter what your background is. And it’s important to recognise that the perception of an athlete – or anyone in the media – may not be in keeping with the cliché. Players of all codes of football receive more attention in Australia than cyclists: the good, the bad, and the ugly is reported. It can lead to the conclusion that footballers are a bunch of boofheads who go mad on certain Mondays, hit the bottle, and carry on like a bunch of hoons. It has happened for league and union players but Rogers reminded me that they’re not the only louts in professional sport.
“There’s certainly a culture in every sport that, I think, has stereotypes that go with it,” he said about the reputation of footballers, but he also pointed out that it’s not unique to ball games. “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!”
By now he was laughing again. (Note: he knows more cyclists than McEwen alone… but that’s a topic for another time.) “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 clown… 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.”
He’s got the tats. He’s had the career. He’s earned his reputation. He’s had his share of injuries. He’s had setbacks. He’s done much more than the average punter. And yet Mat Rogers is as keen as the next bloke to go out and “punish” himself on the bike. He’s a parent, a husband… a person. And he likes to ride his bike. Who doesn’t?
“There are people from every sport now enjoying what cycling can do,” he says when asked about his peers and if they too had discovered the benefits of the simple act of pedalling. “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.”
– By Rob Arnold