Anthony Tan remains unsure how much a sport director contributes to a victory, but in the case of GreenEDGE DS Matthew White, it appears to be no small amount.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM


He is a force of nature. Just having him in the vicinity raises your energy levels. Blessed with the classic Aussie dry wit that often reduces people to hysterics, he was also perceptive enough to notice if there was something wrong. He's a good listener who always finds the right moment to come and chat; that ensured that everybody wanted to talk to Whitey.
With GreenEDGE on a roll it seems timely to talk about the man perhaps most instrumental behind the team's most important victories to date: Matt White.

If you saw their 'Backstage Pass' video from Milan-San Remo, you would've seen White do a lot of things: a whole lot of talking; a lot of encouraging; a modicum of pacifying ("I let Sebastian [Langeveld] and [Matthew] Gossy know that Simon had gotten over the top with Fabian [Cancellara] and [Vincenzo] Nibali," White said on the information he gave via race radio, once Gerrans had crested the final climb of the Poggio in the lead group. "That's all I said. At this stage in the race, it's better to say nothing. They need full concentration for the descent."); and, when Simon Gerrans crossed the line on Sanremo's Lungomare Italo Calvino, an ear-piercing cacophony of screaming and wailing. The latter wasn't just him – the entire GreenEDGE bus was in delirium, and probably still is (cue 'doof-doof' music, thanks maestro).

I've often wondered exactly how much a sport director does behind the wheel in a race, and if today's riders were to race without radios in the WorldTour, as is the UCI wont, how the results would change, if at all.

Millar, a part owner in the Garmin-Barracuda team (along with Jonathan Vaughters and primary benefactor Doug Ellis), asked White to join the team as a DS for the 2008 season, which he accepted. Then called Slipstream-Chipotle (and later that year, Garmin-Chipotle Presented by H3O), the team's first outing in the big time was surprisingly successful.

At the Tour of California (then held in February) they won the teams classification and Christian Vande Velde ran third on GC. In April, Martijn Maaskant took a fourth place in Paris-Roubaix and Trent Lowe was the best young rider at the Tour of Georgia where he finished second overall (Slipstream-Chipotle also won the TTT). At the Giro d'Italia, they won the opening team time trial and by consequence Vande Velde wore the maglia rosa. And in La Grande Boucle, Vande Velde finished fourth overall in the year Carlos Sastre won the Tour de France. The team also won the season-ending Tour of Missouri, again with Vande Velde, as well as another three stage races.

To win a team time trial is a particularly big deal for teams that don't boast the mega-budgets of BMC Racing or Team Sky, who cannot simply 'buy' their way to victory, so to claim the TTT in Palmero at the 2008 Giro, "The result was the perfect example of the mixture we had created of science and spirit," wrote Millar in his 2011 autobiography, Racing Through the Dark. "But on the day," the eloquent Scotsman also said, "what made it possible for us all to implement that blend was Matt White.

"He had been on the steepest learning curve of all, having been thrown in at the deep end from the beginning of the year. By the start of the Giro, Matt had learned an unfathomable amount and was already capable of doing his job better than 90 percent of the directeurs sportifs already in cycling.

"The rousing speech he gave us before the Giro's team time trial remains one of my most memorable sporting moments," continued Millar. "We were inspired, and I'll never forget us congregating after the finish and congratulating each other on the perfect ride. We all knew that we couldn't have gone any faster and, even though we had to wait another 45 minutes before we were confirmed as the winners, we didn't care what the result was as we had nothing to reproach ourselves for. It was an amazing feeling."

* * *

As a bike rider, Millar had this to say about White of his decade as a pro, which, for what it's worth, is also how I remember him: "He was one of those rare riders, a fully committed domestique, with no aspirations of victory or achieving results for himself. Matt knew exactly what he was paid for and that was to work for his leaders until his job was done. Once he'd done everything he could to support their ambitions, he'd save as much energy as possible, so that he'd be able to repeat the performance the next day.

"He was probably one of the best domestiques in the world. One moment his turn of speed would be ripping the peloton to pieces, as he set up his team leader, then 10 minutes later he'd be in the gruppetto, asking around to find out how his leaders were doing at the front of the race."

However according to Millar, what really sets White apart is "his charismatic personality", which one certainly saw (and heard!) during their behind-the-scenes documentary (or, given the almost cringe-worthy larrikinism, should that be mockumentary?) from last weekend's Milan-San Remo.

White, unfortunately for all involved, left the Slipstream Sports group in rather bizarre and, ultimately acrimonious, circumstances. His removal could not have been more public, as it coincided with one of his riders, Cameron Meyer, winning the overall classification at the 2011 Tour Down Under.

Euphoria was quickly usurped by shock, discontent, and probably a good dose of regret.

He was let go by Vaughters for breaching the team's internal anti-doping policy, according to a team statement issued the day it happened, having referred Lowe to a doctor not authorised by the team's chief medical officer, Dr. Prentice Steffen, on April 16, 2009. (Although from my two-month-long investigation in the matter, the policy in question was not instituted in writing and circulated to Slipstream staff till May 29 that year.) The referring doctor, Luis Garcia Del Moral of the Sports Institute of Valencia, oversaw the United States Postal Service (USPS) team from 1999-2003, and had previously been at the centre of allegations of malpractice, in one case being filmed disposing of USPS team medical waste at the 2000 Tour (medical waste disposal services for teams are provided by the TdF organisation).

While cleared by a Cycling Australia (CA) inquiry into the affair, where Vaughters gave testimony in defence of White, saying the breach was in no way "nefarious", White's only source of income stemmed from his appointment with CA as their elite men's road co-ordinator. (It is a position he continues to hold, even though some have argued this to be a conflict of interest, saying it does not allow for impartial decision-making when making selection choices; Garmin-Barracuda sports director Allan Peiper was added as an independent selector to the elite men's panel in March this year).

It was inevitable, then, with GreenEDGE's maiden voyage this Australian summer, White would become a part of the set-up – even though it was not till December 16 last year that I received a press release from the team confirming it to be so (and only five days earlier, at the team's official launch outside the Melbourne Town Hall, that I saw White in an official capacity with the team).

As he did in his first year with Slipstream in 2009, White has clearly blossomed once again in 2012, and, so long as GreenEDGE exists, he will no doubt be there with them.
Despite Millar's rousing appraisal of White, I am still uncertain exactly how much a sport director contributes to a team's victory (at the end of the day, the riders must still have the legs, right?), and as Millar himself says, the role has "become somewhat diluted over the years […] There are so many roles within a team that the directeur has little personal contact with the riders […] It means that one of the most important relationships within a professional cycling team has been lost."

The whole idea behind the hiring of White to Slipstream Sports, however, was to "bring that back" – which, in his little over three years there, the southern Sydney native clearly did.

Now he's doing it again, this time at GreenEDGE.

When Millar asked how on earth he managed to coach his wife, Jane Saville, a since-retired Olympic walker – "you know nothing about walking," he told him – White replied: 'Dave, mate. It's easy.'

He expanded by saying: 'Athletes are all the same – cyclists, walkers – whatever. They're all insecure. You just gotta make 'em feel good; tell 'em to train when they need to train, and make 'em rest when they need to rest.'

"Then with finality," wrote Millar, "he'd say: 'Yep – psychology, mate!'"

Twitter: @anthony_tan