Where are they now? Chasing down... Ruthie Matthes

  
  


by Amanda H. Miller
 
Ruthie Matthes was three and a half years old when she first told her mom she wanted to be in the Olympics.
 
She grew up with active parents in Ketchum, Idaho, and was always athletic. So, her mom would answer with a simple, ‘yes dear,’ that gave Matthes just enough encouragement to keep believing it would happen one day.
 
But even when she was a teenager, Matthes never imagined she would be on a bike at the Olympics, especially not a mountain bike.
 
“I was on the ski team in high school,” she said. “I really wanted to be an Olympian and I thought I would be a skier.”
 
She had been skiing since she could walk, growing up within spitting distance of the Sun Valley ski area.
 
Her ski coach was a big cyclist and convinced Matthes to spend time on her bike during the summers to stay in shape for the winter.
 
It wasn’t hard to do. Even though the bike was never part of her Olympic dream, it had always been part of her life – for at least as long as skiing had been.
 
“We can go pretty darn far back,” Matthes said of her relationship with cycling.
 
Her first bike was so tall Matthes couldn’t reach the pedals. Her sister would hold the bike for her until she could saddle up and pedal with her tip toes a few rotations before crashing.
 
They didn’t make bikes for kids the way they do today, she said.
 
“Growing up in a small town, that was the way to get around,” Matthes said. “It was faster than walking. We lived on the edge of town and my best friend since birth was all the way across town.”
 
Matthes rode her bike to get around. She rode to see friends. She rode to do things. She rode because she didn’t like getting up in time to catch the bus in the mornings and spinning the pedals was the quickest way to school.
 
But she never thought much about biking as a sport until her ski coach told her there weren’t enough junior women riding and she could go to nationals if she just rode.
 
It was 1983 and she showed up to her first road bike race ever.
 
“The other girl riding was wearing makeup and had painted toenails,” Matthes said. “I was pretty tomboyish and looking at her, I thought – I can probably beat her easy. She rode away from me right at the start and I never saw her again.”
 
But she finished and qualified for nationals. Humbled, she trained hard all summer and showed up to nationals stronger and smarter. Of course, she was still the new girl on the scene. Everyone else seemed to know each other and had been riding for a while. After the start, Matthes immediately started chasing the lead racer. She was on the girl’s back tire almost all the way.
 
“Finally I pulled so hard, I tipped over,” she said. The support crew helped her get back on the bike and she finished in fourth place. “I was, like – you’re kidding me, silver was in my hands,” she said.
 
But she knew she could do it and she kept after it.
 
Road biking
 
Later that year, she road in the Red Zinger Mini, a youth bike race in Boulder, Colo.

“The girl who won nationals was there,” Matthes said. “I just rode away from her.” Coming from altitude in Idaho, Matthes had an advantage. And she used it.
 
“I took off from the start and won the yellow jersey,” she said. “I was hooked.” That was when she became a cyclist. Her ski coach told her she would probably go farther in her athletic career on a bike than she would on skis and she knew it herself. So, she made the switch.
 
That began Matthes’ career in road cycling. She was professional and riding full time as soon as she finished high school.
 
She won the 1989 National Criterium Championship and rode that success into the following year. She was the national champion on the road in 1990 and took silver in the World Championships in Japan that year. Matthes rode on two World Championship teams during her road biking career. She was the 1992 World Cup Champion and took second overall in the 1993 World Cup.
 
She wanted to go to the Olympics and was often a strong contender for a spot, but never qualified in the road races, barely missing out in qualifiers.
 
Mountain biking
 
Following the 1988 Olympics, road biking sponsorships were hard to come by, Matthes said.
Mountain biking was getting more popular and more competitive, especially for women, in the late 1980s.
 
Tom Ritchey, known for his mountain bikes and components, said he would sponsor three road cyclists if they would ride mountain bikes as well and commit to the 1990 World Championships.
 
Matthes didn’t get much mountain biking in that year. She was concentrating on her road cycling career even with the Ritchey sponsorship.
 
When she showed up to the World Championships, she wasn’t ranked and had only ridden her mountain bike a handful of times. A natural, she sped ahead of the competition and won bronze.
 
Even with a big victory like that under her belt, Matthes was still mostly devoted to road cycling. Women’s mountain biking wasn’t an Olympic event yet and Matthes wanted to go to the Olympics.
 
“I split my time,” she said. “I was spending half my time mountain biking and half road. It was tough.”
 
She had to decide which races to prioritize and how to get around to all of them without exhausting herself, which proved a more difficult task than she expected.
 
She was riding a stage race on her road bike in Europe in 1991 and was so tired she could hardly finish. But she was committed to the Mountain Bike World Championships a couple days later. She decided to rest up for it over a couple days and quit training.
 
“I woke up the day of the race ready to go,” she said. “And I won. I won the World Championship. I was just like – I can’t believe this is really happening.”
 
Even whipped from over-training and travelling, she pulled out a win.
 
That was when she really started to realize mountain biking was her sport. But she still wanted a spot on that Olympic team and kept one foot in the road ring.
 
She went to a qualifying road race in 1992.
 
“I just overdid it with the training,” she said. “I was dragging, I thought – I can’t qualify.”
 
There was a Mountain Bike World Cup in Canada the same weekend. She bowed out of the road bike qualifier and jetted up to Canada to win the 1992 World Cup.
 
“My road biking career basically ended there and I moved onto the mountain bike,” she said.
 
She was on 12 World Championship mountain biking teams and was a top-three finisher in five of those championship races. And then, women’s mountain biking became an Olympic sport.
 
Matthes was one of five major contenders for the 1996 Games. But the U.S. could only take two athletes. By fractions of points, she missed qualifying.
 
She kept working and riding. She dabbled in Cyclo-cross, taking bronze in the 1997 National Championships and 10th at the 2000 World Championships in the Netherlands.
 
And then it happened. At last, Matthes qualified for the Olympics. She rode her mountain bike in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Her mom and brother were there. Her mom hiked up all the mountains to cheer the ladies on in different sections of the race. She became almost a mascot for the American team, Matthes said.
 
The woman who quietly encouraged her without pressuring her was her biggest cheerleader when she finally achieved that life-long goal of getting to the Olympics.
 
“I wasn’t at the top of my career when I finally got there,” Matthes said.

She finished 10th at the Olympics, which was strong enough. She was there.
 
Where is Matthes now?
 
After Sept. 11, 2001, Matthes decided to retire. She had achieved her Olympic dream and started to dread the idea of traveling so much under the stringent regulations that started after the terrorist attacks.
 
“It was time to move forward into different things,” she said.
 
She lives in Durango, Colo., where she moved during her mountain biking career for easier access to the trails.
 
She started helping a friend who owns an organic farm and studied Jin shin jyutsu, an Eastern energy and healing practice. She offers it as a service and would eventually like to develop it into a bigger business and maybe travel in Asia volunteering.
 
But she struggled to find her place a little after biking until a friend invited her to work with Magura Direct, a German athletic gear and apparel company. She’s an ambassador for the brand and for the company, which also imports high-quality gear made by other German manufacturers.

It’s a fun job. She gets to try out gear and talk to sales reps and potential customers about it and how it all works. She travels and gets around the world, but not more than she can handle.
 
She’s able to enjoy living in a small mountain town like the one where she grew up. She doesn’t get out on the trails everyday anymore, but she does still ride all the time for fun and for transportation – just like she did when she was a kid.
 
The one time she drove to town, she put money in the wrong meter and got a ticket.

“That’s it,” she said. “Now I ride rain or shine.”
 
It’s hard to say for sure what will come next. For now, Matthes is enjoying her work and her little town and her garden.
 
She was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2012 and will always draw from the strength her riding career has helped her to build.
 
“I have earned my career as well,” she said. “But I’m really grateful I was given so many opportunities. I hit the wave of women’s mountain biking and I think all the time about how fortunate I am.”


This Article Published August 12, 2013 For more information contact:
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