Retro PEZ Talk: Ruthie Matthes!

Retro Interview: Multi-champion in the 80s on the road and then do it all again on a mountain bike in the 90s, with a World championship thrown in, is quite unique. Ruthie Matthes did it and more. Ed Hood caught up with the lady from Idaho for a chat over old times and what is in the present for the champ.

Ruthie Matthes – does the name ring a bell?

She began her cycling career in 1983 on the road, including winning three national titles in as many disciplines and earning the silver at the World Road Race Championships in 1990. After switching to mountain biking full-time in 1991, Matthes went onto add World Champion to her palmarès, along with a World Cup title, and a trip to the Sydney Summer Olympic Games in 2000.

She’s recently signed up with Mike Engleman’s Mission Sorts Group to become involved with event opportunities and other projects in order to attract a broader audience to the sport of cycling.
Always keen to chat former world champs when we were given the opportunity we posed a few questions to the lady.

PEZ: You were originally a skier, how did you get into bike racing, Ruthie?
Ruthie Matthes:
Yes, I grew up in Ketchum Idaho where both of my parents being terrific skiers and ski instructors. I chased my older sister and brother around on skis too. When I was three-and-a-half I saw Jean Claude Killy win three Gold medals at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics. I so wanted to be an Olympic skier. I had a ski coach who suggested I join the local cycling club for summer dry land training. My first licensed race to qualify for Junior Nationals, I placed second out of two girls. That fired me up to go faster and be better.

PEZ: Do you remember your first win?
I went to the Mini Red Zinger Classic stage race my first season in 1983, with the support of my Mom and the family station wagon. I won several of the stages and the overall title. That was monumental for me, as I had crashed out of second place in the National Road Race a couple weeks before, finishing fourth. The National Champion was at the Mini Zinger.

PEZ: Your road career took you to a Worlds silver – was there not a desire within to go ‘one better’?
Yes, I really wanted to make the Olympic road Team as well. However, I had dipped my toes into the MTB world and I found that style of racing suited me better. I liked being in the woods racing away from cars. I’d had enough road rash too.

PEZ: For several seasons you did road and MTB how did you come to the decision to go ‘100% dirt’?
I was finding more success, having more fun and I was earning a higher pay check – the World Cup races paid the men and women the same prize money for the top three.

PEZ: The transition was pretty smooth but did you miss the ‘thrill of the pack’?
Sometimes I missed the speed and flow of fast road descents. I didn’t really like the finishing chaos of group sprints; except for winning the group sprint in the 1990 World Championships for a silver medal.

PEZ: What were the differences between your road and MTB training/preparation?
When I first made the crossover, I spent a lot of time on the MTB working on my skills. I had good power and speed, especially uphill but I would lose time descending. I did go back to logging miles on the road bike and even did a few road races to work again on speed and power. It was harder to recover from MTB races and MTB rides so road riding was a great complement to recovery and logging early season fitness without burning out.

PEZ: MTB World Champion in ‘91 then third in ’92 – is it true that it’s harder to defend a title than to win it for the first time?
For me yes but Alison Sydor managed to win three World Championship titles in a row; and Henrik Djernis my Ritchey Teammate did as well.

PEZ: You moved from the Ritchey to the Trek team – from the ‘artisan to the hi-tech corp.’ what was the change like?
Hmm, the sport had changed quite a bit in the 9 years. My recollection is in the “earlier” days, we really focused on the racing, developing equipment and having fun doing it. When MTB became an Olympic sport the atmosphere changed at the races, the teams became less interactive with each other, less willing to help each other out, the competition did not stop once the race ended.

PEZ: From steel to carbon, cantilevers to discs you’ve ridden through the changes – what would you say is the biggest difference between MTB’s then and now?
Overall lighter weight bikes, suspension, disc brakes, I wish I had been able to race with Magura suspension forks and disc brakes!

PEZ: You won a cyclo-cross National medal but never really pursued that course – I would have thought you were a ‘natural’ for X?
I love cyclo-cross and yes, perhaps I could have been very good at it but after long International seasons I was tired. I was on the US National Team for the first time Women raced in the World Championships, that was 2000. Cross was not as popular in the US back then and super hard to get sponsorship for.

PEZ: When and what was your last race?
My last UCI licensed race was the World Championships Vail 2001.

PEZ: Your transition from sport to business seemed to go very smoothly. . .
I took some time away from cycling to pursue healing arts and organic farming practices. The transition was challenging. The majority of my life I had been a competitive athlete and then; ‘what’s next?’ I was very fortunate to connect with the terrific people at Magura and reconnect to my passion for cycling.

PEZ: Are you still with Magura? what do you do with them?
YES! I have been with them officially since 2010. Good question, I am a Brand Ambassador. I help with sales, promotions, events, customer relations. In addition to Magura we represent Lake Cycling shoes, Lightweight wheels, frames, and clothing, Vredestein Tires, and we are the service centre for Bosch e-bike motors.

PEZ: Do you still ride the bike?
Yes, most of my miles recently have been town commuting. Why drive when I can ride? This year I will be riding more, road and mountain, tours and fun non-competitive events.

PEZ: Tell us about your passion for nature, please.
Throughout my career I was interested in supporting my body in the healthiest ways possible. That has lead me to many paths to explore in more depth the question; ‘what is a balanced life?’ I am very interested and involved in backyard gardening. Studying about soil health, using fungi and no till methods as well as composting and mulching; which all create healthier food and the cycle begins again.

Tied into healthy food is also my interest in herbalism and its expansive health benefits. I am also fascinated with mycology. The function of fungi in the world is simply phenomenal. And I love to go in the woods with my Mom, (who turns 90! this April) and hunt edible mushrooms. We also hunt and eat wild foods. The healing arts are another passion of mine. Qigong-movement, massage, meditation and breathing; also, Jin Shin Jyutsu, a form of energetic healing, that can expand one’s awareness and understanding. The World is so full of vibrant learning opportunities. My Mom is my inspiration, she continues to be ever curious and interested in the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

PEZ: Any ‘what ifs’ about your career?
A very interesting question. My answer just out of my competitive career would have been different, mainly oriented to race results. In the ‘now,’ I look back and feel very grateful for the wonderful people I met, friends I still cherish, the amazing support I received, my Mom and Brother traveling around the world to Championships and the Olympics and being blessed with the opportunity to explore the world on a bike.

Thanks to all the photographers and companies concerned: Magura, Ritchey and PowerBar.

It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,500 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site where more of his musings on our sport can be found.

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