Ontario racer Carson Mattern isn’t just a superstar World Champion on the track—though that was a pretty high point for him last season. Now that he has the rainbow stripes in one discipline, rather than resting on his laurels, he’s opted to focus on the road as well as track this season. We chatted with the 18-year-old from Ancaster as he took a rest day in Belgium, where he’s spending the bulk of his time so he can race with the Cannibal Team in Europe. That said, while road is on his mind right now, the 2024 Olympics aren’t far off, and he’s still thinking about those as well—and before we could even post this, he was back in Canada to take the National Championship titles in nine out of the nine track events he entered, missing a World record by a fraction of a second in the process. So, yes, Carson is proving that it is possible to excel in two cycling disciplines.
How is Belgium so far?
It’s great. And it’s been just a wild experience. I got lots of racing right away, some UCI and some local races, and I feel like I’m gaining a lot of experience, obviously with racing but then also just from living in a foreign country, because that’s obviously going to be very much in the future if I make it as a cyclist. There are just little things you wouldn’t normally have to think about, like what number you call if you have an emergency, since it’s not 911 over here. Getting a SIM card was really difficult because I’m not Belgian. And of course, trying to stay in touch with friends and family with the time zone difference is tough. Luckily, my mom gets up super early so I can usually call in the morning and she’s awake. But when we were in Turkey, trying to connect with my coach out in BC was almost impossible since we had a 12 hour time difference!
How is racing there versus in North America?
It’s a whole different game. You’re starting with 150 guys in a field, which is huge. Just trying to figure out how the pack navigates and moving around in the group is super hectic. My first race, you’re onto these really narrow roads with cobbles quickly, and if you’re not in the front, you’re not going to make the lead group, so no one wants to give up position. And all of this is happening on 15 kilometers of cobblestones! And not knowing most of the riders or teams here yet, it’s hard to tell which teams are strong. But then on the other hand, it’s also kind of nice, because you just kind of go out there and race. There’s no, ‘Oh, I have to watch him and what’s he going to do.’ You’re just purely racing on instinct. It was such a culture shock. I wasn’t even in the front, I was just trying to survive those first races. After the first couple, I got the hang of it a bit: I actually made it into a break, so it was cool knowing I can mix it up at the front. It’s gratifying seeing fast improvement as I figure it out.
Is there anything you wish you had known before you got to Europe, or advice you’d give another rider who’s considering it?
I’m normally pretty good at trying to figure out ahead of time what competition is going to be like, but coming here, I flew in blind. Maybe it would have been a good idea to go on ProCyclingStats.com to see which clubs or teams are generally winning races. Life-wise, I think just going in knowing it’ll feel weird is helpful. You can Google Translate everything, but you’re pretty on your own and it’s hard to have conversations. It would help to have your teammates, but with COVID, I’ve been living in a house mainly by myself, which is a very unique experience. I’m a pretty independent person, but I do have moments where I realize that I’m 6000 kilometers away from home and I’m just alone. That’s very strange. But I have the mindset that I’m in this to gain as much experience as possible, and I know the results will come.
Road is obviously your focus now, but where does track fit in?
Track is obviously a big one for me, especially after winning Worlds last season. I don’t know that I would call my main discipline either track or road: I think they kind of have equal priority right. Track is a bit more of a focus because the Olympics are so close, so I’ll be back in Ontario to race Nationals and do the selection camp for Worlds. I want to be part of that. [Ed Note: Carson came back for Nationals and won 9 or the 9 events he entered.] After that, I’m going to go back to Europe to do some more road racing, then come back to Canada for road nationals, and then I’ll be in Canada doing a few road races plus preparation for track Worlds.
Speaking of Worlds: How was winning World championships and the experience of racing in Cairo?
It felt like multiple trips all in one. Being in Egypt was already an amazing experience and so different from anything I knew. It was also my first really big track competition. And then on top of that, the success of that week was just mind-blowing. Combine all of that and it was just a ridiculous experience. I kind of floated on that emotion for a week or two afterwards. It was wild.
Any big takeaways from the experience?
At the end of the day, when you get up on the track, the actual act of riding your bike is the same. It’s everything you do before and everything you do after that makes a difference. That’s how I was really able to step up my game because I feel that I did everything I could. I knew I got on the bike, I was in the best shape possible and just had to race.
Track events are so short, what does nutrition look like during a competition day?
Obviously, fueling before and after training and racing is massive, especially when you have track races that are so all-out. It’s a unique fueling program. Recovery and cooling down are also huge factors: It really will bite you the next day if you don’t do a cooldown properly.
Why spend time in Europe this year if track and the Olympics are a focus?
This has been a dream that I’ve always had. I worked the last three and a half years to finish high school early so that I could come here to race the spring of what would have been senior year.
Do you get nervous that you’ve taken on too much?
Obviously you worry about it a little bit, because it’s a massive undertaking to fly halfway around the world to do something you’ve never done before. But happily, track and road really go hand in hand. A lot of training for track is riding on the road. A lot of the track riders in Canada and around the world race on the road a lot. For me, it’s a matter of focus. When it’s time to focus on the track, I come home, and that’s what I’m doing for a few weeks.
Training is obviously a lot of time on the road and some time on track, but anything else?
Fitting in time in the gym is tricky but important. It’s hard to find a balance and fit it in, but it’s so massively important for so many reasons. To do that strength training and not lose the on-bike benefits, you really have to be thoughtful about it. I’ve learned how important it is to follow the program and trust the process. Some days aren’t pretty, but you know that it’ll pay off in the long term.
Do you race anything other than road or track?
I do some cyclocross for fun, and it’s great to go into a race and have no pressure at all. At the same time, cyclocross is also a great chance to go super hard, get a good workout and work on my skills. It turns out, cyclocross skills translate really well in road racing, being able to ride smoothly on rough terrain like cobblestones. Some of these races here in Belgium, you need a lot of bike handling skills and a lot of balance. And that’s something I’ve improved on the last probably two years, largely thanks to cyclocross. I’m also interested in gravel racing, especially if I’m home since in Ontario, there are so many more gravel races than there are road races now—and the fields are deeper in some cases. And then even if you look at the professional scene, some of the biggest races in the world are adding more mixed surfaces and more difficult terrain to the courses. So all those offroad skills are applicable.
About the writer:
Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.