“In gravel, we all line up together.”
After taking an early race lead, a final non-stop stint of riding saw Mattia de Marchi less than 100 km from the finish line of Badlands 2021. The virtual field of dot watchers globally urging him on to victory then noticed his tracker had stalled—as if Mattia had pulled up and stopped on the side of the road. What later became apparent was a crash in the town of Murtas saw Mattia dusting himself down and continuing without realising he’d lost his tracker. But rather than any sense of despair when it did finally sink in that his progress wasn’t being recorded, the Italian gravel racer calmly shared his location with the race organisers over WhatsApp before pushing on for the win.
“Even after riding for close to 750 km and without any sleep for the final 48 hours, I don’t remember any moments of panic. But I think our heads have a crazy strength and can do things that we can’t even imagine.”
With this combination of mental and physical resilience carrying the day, it helps frame Mattia’s mention of always keeping a dollar in his pocket. A reference to leaving enough in the tank that, whatever the eventuality, he can marshall reserves even when sleep deprived and at the limits of his endurance.
“There’s a difference in events of about 48 hours where the tendency is to start very strong – almost like a Gran Fondo – and then find a pace that allows you to advance. In multi-day races you look for regularity and minimising your stops. You can gain or lose hours each day depending on your strategy for eating and sleeping. But it’s a delicate balance and you don’t always get it right.”
Growing up near the Italian city of Venice, bikes were always a family passion and Mattia fondly remembers visiting the Udine region to the north where he would ride with his cousins. As an energetic 9 year old, the racing handlebars and coloured helmets were what first delighted but it wasn’t long before he recognised the competitor within.
“I don’t like to lose and I’m prepared to dig deep if I find someone stronger than me in my way. But I was definitely not born with extraordinary gifts. I’ve worked hard and made sacrifices to be who I am now. And I’m not just talking about being strong on the bike.”
This mental strength was needed when Mattia turned professional but didn’t quite make it to the World Tour—a stage win at the Tour of China proving a highlight and demonstrating an innate talent that has continued to reap rewards since a switch to gravel at the 2020 Atlas Mountain Race.
“That first gravel event proved quite a contrast after racing professionally on the road. There, you have mechanics in the car shadowing the peloton but when I broke my handlebars and cut my thumb in the North African mountains, I had to deal with these issues on my own. Even now, I always carry a tube of superglue when I’m racing to help fix things and seal up any open wounds.”
With experience teaching the tactical advantage that paying attention to details offers – in a race as gnarly as Unbound, a cut tyre wall can lead to a significant delay or even a DNF – Mattia would still argue that it takes luck as well as skill to secure a win. And that mental resilience is just as important as the ability to plug a tyre.
“It all stems from the head. If you really want something, you have to go for it. Listening to your body and training makes a significant difference. But you have to be hungry!”
The thought of racing against Lachlan Morton at Badlands certainly appealed to Mattia—the Education First rider, a source of inspiration with his Alternative Calendar of gravel, mountain biking and ultra-endurance events. Morton ultimately chose not to defend his Badlands win from the previous year but the pair did line up at the 2022 Traka and what ensued proved to be an entertaining mix of determination and doggedness. After taking an early lead, the pair battled it out until Morton’s seatpost broke. Fixing it (after a fashion) with a combination of duct tape and prayers, the Australian chased but not before Mattia took his second Traka win in successive years.
“I’ve spent three weeks in Africa with Lachlan. Racing our gravel bikes but also the transfers in between by jeep and bus. And Lachlan is as you see him—genuine, true, and most of all you can tell he has fun riding his bike.”
This sense of camaraderie between competitors is often mooted as a significant difference between the professional world of road racing and the privateer model of the gravel calendar. And looking back at his own road career, Mattia well remembers how his teammates all sat wearing headphones on team bus transfers – himself included – and that sharing a few beers was reserved for the final evening before flights the following morning. Some might argue the antithesis of the simple pleasures that riding a bike affords and one possible point of inspiration that led Mattia and friends to found the Enough Cycling Collective.
“The idea was born from what fundamentally makes us happy—riding a bicycle and sharing this joy with people from all walks of life. It’s our vision to help them grow through cycling in all its different and wide forms. And if you look at gravel, it isn’t just dirt. Gravel is something that every person can experience in a way they like it best. There’s fewer of the boundaries that still persist in the world of road cycling. In gravel, we all line up together.”
This mention of riding together leads to Mattia admitting – with a smile – that he wasn’t brave enough to enter this year’s Silk Road Mountain Race singularly—preferring instead to ride as a pair. Even so, the brutal nature of such an extreme parcours took its toll and Mattia was forced to withdraw. A difficult decision made harder by the thought of leaving his friend to continue on alone.
“I often talk about listening to your body but before the Silk Road Race I didn’t. I hate not accomplishing something and I tried to move forward with my head but sometimes it’s not enough. But you learn a lot from these experiences and in the following weeks I took some time for myself and especially for my body. I’m fortunate enough to travel the world and do events that many people can only dream about. But still, it is not as easy as some may think. You take this year’s wet Unbound—it was a fucking battle. But over the years I’ve tried to work on not being affected with weather conditions. If it rains, it rains on everyone!”
Closing out the season in his first national jersey at the UCI Gravel Championships close to where he grew up, Mattia was pictured pre-race making pizza and chatting informally with his supporters—a lighthearted interlude that reflects his innate capacity to seek enjoyment in life’s simple pleasures.
“I’m constantly travelling from race to race and feel very fortunate that I can discover these new cultures. But I’m also very attached to my home and always like to come back. Maybe I focus a little too much on the bike, so spending time with family is very important. Life is not always straightforward and it’s important to find a balance. And like I say, keep a dollar in your pocket because you never know what might happen next [smiles].”
Photography by Sami Sauri (including feature image) and Chiara Redaschi
See individual images for photo credits