It’s a bright winter’s day in central London and daylight streams through the windows of a Soho café where Matteo Carrara reflects upon a 12-year career in cycling’s top tier and a memorable victory at the Tour de Luxembourg, which he finished atop a podium shared with Fränk Schleck and a certain Texan.
Carrara is a youthful 35 and seemingly locked in a perpetual struggle with excess energy. He is engaging company, admitting to being “crazy” in the matter-of-fact tone in which others might confess a weakness for crisps. Only when describing the events of a race is he completely serious.
His career, one that included top ten GC finishes in a host of WorldTour races, including the Tour de Suisse, Volta a Catalunya and Critérium du Dauphiné, might have been longer had he not enjoyed “the life” so much, he concedes. As he attacked with 20km remaining of the 203km queen stage of the 2010 Tour de Luxembourg however, Carrara was supremely focussed.
Riding a wave of form and focus that had placed him in the top ten of every race he had contested that season, the Italian knew he had the condition to make an impact. On the second ascent of the Col de l’Europe, Carrara move to the head of a peloton led by the biggest names in the sport.
“I started the final climb in fortieth or fiftieth position,” he remembers. “My legs felt all right. Everyone was strung out in a line, suffering, so I passed them all to go to the front. At the front was Andreas Klöden, Lance Armstrong, Fränk Schleck, Andy Schleck – everyone in the top ten.
“Fränk Schleck attacked. Klöden closed the gap to Schleck. I thought, ‘My legs are alright. Why not?’ When Kloden closed the gap to Schleck I thought, ‘This is the right moment.’ I decided to launch a direct counter attack.
“Soon, I was alone. Schleck counter-attacked again and came with me. We were thinking, ‘Ok, we need to work.’ I was one second ahead of him in the prologue so I knew that if we came in together, I would be the yellow jersey. We decided to work together, full gas to the finish line. Schleck won, and I was second, but I had the jersey, and that was the important thing for me – to take the yellow jersey.”
Carrara’s race was just beginning, however. Stage three almost matched the second stage for toughness. The 191.5km run from Eschweiler to Diekirch was another riddled with climbs – eight in total – including a triple ascent of the Broderbour on a three-lap finishing circuit.
With Tony Gallopin up the road with Giovanni Visconti and pedalling to his first pro victory, the favourites were left to concentrate on each other. Among the 40-strong peloton of top riders – Carrara recalls the presence of Armstrong, Klöden, Fränk Schleck, and Flecha again, but also Alexander Kolobnev, Jens Voigt and Serguei Ivanov – the race leader could count just one Vacansoleil team-mate: Björn Leukemans.
“I got to the top with only Leukemans. We had 10km to the finish and it was really difficult to control the race. So I decided: ‘I need to attack again.’ With one kilometre to the summit, I was really suffering. I attacked, but I’d never attacked like this before. I didn’t watch anyone. I tried not to think that I had ten more kilometres to ride. I tried to think that the finish line was on top of the climb. I gave everything.
“At the top of the climb, it was me and Fränk Schleck; Schleck in my wheel. So again, we decided to work to the finish line. At 1km to the finish, a small peloton came, but I thought, ‘It’s only 1km to go, I can control it myself.’ Armstrong, Klöden, Voigt, Ivanov. I retained my yellow jersey. I felt so happy.”
If Carrara was hoping for a coronation ride on a relaxed final stage, he was to be disappointed. Stage four was marked by thunder, lightning and torrential rain, as well as another hilly circuit finish, this time in the city of Luxembourg. With a gap of just one second over Fränk Schleck on GC, he would have to race to the finish. The final stage was plunged into confusion early on as commissaires struggled to communicate to the peloton that the race had been neutralised for GC placings after just two of five laps.
Carrara, lost in the confusion, took matters into his own hands. “I was so nervous because I wanted to win, but I didn’t understand if it was neutralised or not. I had team-mates at the start, but on the final lap no one with me – I was alone. I decided to stay at the front and close all the attacks. Actually, I was really close to winning the stage. [Gorka] Izaguirre won, second was Serguei Ivanov and third was me. It was a very good sprint.”
Still Carrara was unable to enjoy the moment. The prevailing uncertainty was compounded by two stewards enquiries in two races a month previously, one which had deprived him of a sprint victory over José Serpa. The anxiety as he awaited the commissaires ruling in Luxembourg was close to unbearable, if not unprecedented: only after a delay had his one-second overall victory at the 2009 Circuit de Lorraine been confirmed.
Finally, the result was confirmed and Carrara, Schleck and Armstrong made their way onto the podium. Did he receive congratulations from the men with whom he shared the dais? “I am friends with Fränk Schleck,” Carrara confirms. And from Armstrong? “My English is bad now, but then it was terrible,” he laughs, directing us to YouTube for footage of the ceremony.
He describes Armstrong as quiet, not intimidating, but respected by all. Carrara’s response reveals more about himself than Armstrong, however. “In my 12 years as a professional, I respected everyone. For me, Armstrong was the same as the rider who finished last. My comportment was the same for the last one as the first one.” Carrara expands on the theme when asked about the Schlecks. He describes Frank as a “real champion” – one with strength, but also with respect for his competitors – but adds that in his opinion, Andy was blessed only with strength.
Carrara says he maintains good relationships with the peloton and believes the sport is a good deal cleaner than when he turned professional in 2000, a transition that instantly relegated him from decorated amateur, able to win with ease, to a rider struggling to make an impact. Only late in his career, such as in the aforementioned Tour of Luxembourg, and with the peloton far along the road to a cleaner sport, was he able to win. He offers the immediate results now enjoyed by the very best young riders as evidence for a cleaner peloton, and there is something in what he says: it’s impossible to imagine the instant success of the Yates twins, for example, in the blighted years of the late 1990s or early to mid-2000s.
Carrara has recently settled in the United Kingdom with his girlfriend, where he is kept busy by a host of business ventures. He is a coach with over 50 clients for Cadence Performance in Crystal Palace and a partner in the BelieveCreate agency, whose clients include Rapha Travel, X-Bionic, and LikeBike Monaco. As he goes about the business of his new life as a retired profesional in London and Monaco, that storm-hit afternoon in Luxembourg is likely to live long in his memory.