When you are married to one of the country's leading cyclo-cross stars, as pro road rider Matt Brammeier is, it's easy to be excited about the current buzz around the sport.
Wife Nikki, alongside Helen Wyman - who reclaimed her national title from the Derbyshire-born star earlier this month - both sit in the top eight of the UCI Cyclo-Cross World Cup standings, while Evie Richards claimed her first elite World Cup victory, in Namur back in December. The future looks bright for Britain's up-and-coming male riders, too, with junior world champion Tom Pidcock continuing to destroy all before him having stepped up to under-23 level this winter.
Meanwhile, local cyclo-cross leagues are growing in popularity and yet, with cyclo-cross not an Olympic discipline, there appears to be a ceiling on the sport's growth - with no medals to be won and national funding suffering as a result. That's something the Brammeiers are hoping to put right.
Attentive cyclo-cross fans will have seen Nikki wearing a Mudiiita-Canyon jersey since the turn of the year, but this is more than just a new team for the three-time national 'cross champion, who has committed fully to the sport again after two years on the road with Boels-Dolmans.
Mudiiita is the new 'cross project jointly-launched by the Brammeiers, who aim to inspire more people to take up the sport, while also offering an academy and cyclo-cross coaching clinics alongside the Canyon-backed pro team.
With Nikki in the midst of preparing for the World Championship on Saturday February 3, we caught up with four-time Irish national road champion Matt, who rides for Aqua Blue Sport, to find out more about Mudiiita, his role in the project, and to discuss the future of cyclo-cross.
RoadCyclingUK: What were yours and Nikki’s reasons for launching the Mudiiita project?
Matt Brammeier: We always asked ourselves why there wasn’t a bigger pool of talent coming through to the elite level, going out to Belgium and in the bigger races.
- Mudita (definition): a pure joy unadulterated by self-interest; taking joy from the happiness and success of others
There was a handful that used to head over and get their heads kicked in, just to get round, and we always asked ourselves why - what could be done, and what could we do?
People need to be more aware of the sport, I guess, and what’s available. We just need to get people interested - that’s what it’s about: make the younger generation want to do it and give them a bit of inspiration so there’s more kids knocking on the door.
How important was it to the two of you to have both an academy and a pro team?
In truth, originally it was just the academy in our thoughts, but then we had the idea of trying to set something up for Nikki and get that next step on the ladder - a bit of a pathway for riders, and maybe even from there moving on to bigger teams, such as Sven Nys’ team (Telenet-Fidea Lions).
It can be just another stepping stone, but you never know maybe it could also become one of the bigger teams one day. You never know. At the moment though, it all made sense and fitted well with what Nikki wanted to do at the time. It’s worked out well.
How are you identifying riders for the academy?
We’re already looking around for riders. We’re at most of the races and can see where the talent is, and we’ve had people get in touch already with their CVs and sending messages, so we are already building a list. We’re not really looking at pure talent though. We’re looking at people’s commitment and their attitude to it as well. How committed are they?
I think the [current] generation of [road and track] cyclists, they’ve had a lot done for them. It’s been easy for them, especially when compared to how we both came through the ranks - we had to sort things on our own - and that’s made us who we are I guess. It’s given us, I’d like to think, a bit of character and that’s what you need in cycling.
So many people come into it [but don't last long]. They might get to the top tier - you see so many people now who can push hard on the pedals and might have the talent - but when you get down to the nitty gritty of it they just don’t have that character.
"We’re not really looking at pure talent. We’re looking at commitment and attitude as well. How committed are they?"
But we’ve got people helping us out and we’re just trying to find a good group. As I said, it’s not necessarily the best riders we can find - that’s not what we want to do. We want to help the people who we can see have potential.
That character would be especially important in cyclo-cross, wouldn’t it? Whereas road cycling has boomed in the UK, cyclo-cross is a sport which still very much has its heart in Belgium.
It does - and that’s our challenge, really. We want cyclo-cross in the UK to be like it is in Belgium. If you look down to the end of the line - not our end goal, but the end goal for cyclo-cross - it has to be the Olympics. Once it has ticked that box it will explode.
If they were to get an Olympic spot next year, for example, it would look after itself. The funding would come in, and a lot of sponsors would get involved.
So we want to do our bit to put the UK on the map - because the biggest challenge is to make cyclo-cross a global sport. Maybe we’ll be out there doing it by ourselves, or maybe someone else will come out and do something similar - we just don’t know - but we want to get the ball rolling, see what happens, rattle the cage, you know?
What’s your own view on cyclo-cross, from a roadie’s perspective?
I love it. It’s one of my regrets not to have given it a go when I was younger. I messed about a little bit, did a few races on my mountain bike - as you do - but I didn’t really give it much focus. It was like now - it’s just not something people are doing, and not something people aspire to.
"I love cyclo-cross - if you look at the racing, I think it’s a lot more exciting than some road races"
They want to do what their peers are doing, and they want to do what the people on the front of the cycling magazines are doing - they want to be Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Mark Cavendish… they’re not looking at Sven Nys because he’s not on the front of those magazines.
But I love it – if you look at the racing, I think it’s a lot more exciting than some road races are but you have to have an understanding of it to get that excitement. It’s more accessible, it’s a shorter race - there are so many things to like about cyclo-cross.
What’s your role going to be in the project, particularly with your road commitments?
Well I’m still trying to be a pro bike rider! Obviously I’ve been helping getting things set up but, from here, going forward it’s just about giving Nikki a hand.
"It’s our thing, we’re not tied down to being told what to do by anyone. We can do what we want and go in any direction we want, which is pretty cool"
It is still just the two of us working on it – it might look like a big project on the outside, but it is just the two of us with a little bit of help here and there.
We can’t aspire to do anything crazy; with the academy, for example, our initial thoughts were to give the kids what they need - equipment, coaching, mentoring - but that could even go one step further now because we have had messages from people who want to get involved.
But I’d like to put as much time into it as I can. It’s still all very fluid. It’s our thing, we’re not tied down to being told what to do by anyone. We can do what we want and go in any direction we want, which is pretty cool.
How does the Mudiiita project fit with Nikki’s ambitions as a rider for the next few years?
It’s perfect. From the last few years with Boels-Dolmans, I know she’s really enjoyed it and loved being with the team and racing with the girls, but on a purely professional level, Mudiiita will be perfect for her and that’s what we wanted.
"It’s her goal to become world champion in the next few years and so we looked at how to best do that"
It’s her goal to become world champion in the next few years and so we looked at how to best do that. Being on a road team and having people pulling from that direction wasn’t necessarily the best thing for her. There were training camps and the odd race that just didn’t fit perfectly with what she wanted to do.
Road racing was always something she really wanted to do, to complement her cyclo-cross racing. She wanted to go to the Olympics and she did, which is great, but now her focus is purely on the world Championships.
With what she’s doing now, she can do what she wants - she can go on training camps when she wants, she can train in Girona, she can race when she wants. It’s absolutely perfect really.
Is now a good time to be investing in cyclo-cross? We've seen Tom Pidcock achieve extraordinary success on the one hand, but on the other Helen Wyman was struggling to find sponsorship at the turn of the year?
In any walk of cycling, the sponsorship side of it is difficult. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to do something a little different. It’s not just a cyclo-cross team - we’re doing ‘cross clinics, and we’re planning on doing more stuff with kids.
There are going to be a lot of other avenues we go down, so it’s not just purely trying to find sponsors. The team is just one piece of what we’re doing.
So, I think in that regard it’s definitely a good time now. Not just for us, but everyone involved in 'cross, we need to jump on this pool of talent that we have.
From the outside it might look really good with Tom winning the under-23 races, we have Ben Tullett winning the juniors and Helen and Nikki winning women’s races, but when it boils down it’s actually only five or six people winning races and we need more than that.
Tom Pidcock is, more than likely, going to be under-23 world champion. Ben Tullett and Dan Tullett, they’re not far off as well, so I think we do need to jump on it and do what we can to feed that inspiration back to the next generation.
You say sponsorship is only a small part of what you are doing, but how big a boost is it to have a company such as Canyon backing you?
To have such a big company like that wanting to invest in not just our project but ‘cross in general, shows where it’s going.
For a lot of the companies we’ve spoken to, we had that boom in 2012, when Brad won the Tour and the Olympics too. But from that, bike sales, while not starting to fall, I think have peaked. Now, people are moving on to something different. They’re getting a little bored of riding on the road, or perhaps don’t feel safe.
A lot of people are looking for something different – a bit more fun, something you can do with the kids.
People are starting to buy the likes of gravel bikes to go off-road. That’s what we’re hoping – and a lot of big companies are banking on – is that they’ll go from gravel to cyclo-cross. We really hope it can prompt a transition to ‘cross.